Alexander Payne makes movies that I like. I wait for them, watch them, remember them, but without ever mistaking them as bigger than they are. They are short stories on film. Which is the opposite of a failing.
I loved this film for two reasons. First, it refuses to tell us that people are the boring standard people we imagine them to be in most of our movies but it doesn’t ironize or idealize them either. They are ordinary and interesting. Second, the photography could have been an annoying sign of “indie-film” credibility. But it wasn’t. Instead, it thematized the approach to character: the ordinary world is interesting and beautiful when looked at with care and with craft.
In the days after seeing this film, I kept thinking about that fact that this film, which at every moment seemed as if it should manifest as gothic, never does. Lynch who at every moment should manifest as an antecedent does not. I’ve decided that this evasion of the gothic is not an accident, but is in fact a conscious effect generated by refusing the past’s claim on the present.
(The gothic is, in an important sense, an eruption of the past into the present: a ghost, a family history, an archaic brutality, the body in the closet, whatever. This is the context for Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)
In Nebraska, the central characters live in the present, insistently. They mock the idea of living under the shadow of the past. The most obvious example of this is also the film’s most excerpted moment: the mother not only speaks ill of the dead as she shuffles from tombstone to tombstone in a cemetery, she mocks the dead for being dead and gone, lifting her skirts to their graves and laughing at the fact that they wanted but cannot have her still-living body. Skin sags down the back of her knees and over the elastic of her socks but she glories in the fact that her body alive is better than any flesh rotten underground.
Every conflict between the world and the core family (the father, the mother, the two sons) arises because someone claims rights based on the past. Aunts, uncles, cousins and old acquaintances lay claim to the family’s future by speaking of past debts. Yet these debt are all illegitimate, baseless and without force. When the parents meet old friends in this movie? They have nothing to say to them. And the old man on the street who keeps thanking the father and son for coming back to their home town? He’s a comic figure. The central characters refuse to be (and laugh at the idea of being) haunted.
I think this refusal of the gothic goes a way towards accounting for the difference between Payne’s films and those of his indie-film contemporaries.