“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem “The Hollow Men, “not with a bang but a whimper.”
Nebraska shows how it works in the United States. While the acclaimed new film by Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne presents itself as being an unvarnished, black and white, realistic, even hyper-realistic examination of a small group of people in the Midwest, it’s best viewed as an allegory about the end of American civilization. The United States, the film tells us, will not go down in flames, consumed by the souls of dead slaves and native Americans who rise up like demons from their graves. Rather, it will simply spin out into tired irrelevance, like the disconnected thoughts of a senile old man.
Woody Grant, played by a time-ravaged Bruce Dern, a retired auto-mechanic living in Billings Montana, has received a letter from Publishers Clearing House informing him that if subscribes to a list of magazines he will be entered into a sweepstakes to win a million dollars. While most of just run this kind of junk mail through the shredder as soon as we get it, Woody, who’s In the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, not only believes that he’s already won, he thinks he has to go personally to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his prize. No longer able to drive, he’s determined to go the 700 miles by foot.. Every day the police find him walking alongside the highway in the middle of Winter. Every day they bring him back to his wife, who remarks that if she had a million dollars, the first thing she would do is put him in a home. Finally David, his 40-year-old son, hoping it will bring him back down to reality, agrees to drive him.
Along the way they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska — I have no idea if it’s a real town or not — where the majority of the film takes place. Hawthorne Nebraska is the end of America. We observe the huge grain silos towering over the sparse, sincere downtown. The beaten up, whitewashed houses, the threadbare decor, the decades old advertisements, it’s a pale fading spirit of a great agricultural and industrial civilization in the memory of an old man.
I sometimes wonder why Americans no longer seem capable of greatness, or even of great evil, why, unlike people in the Middle East or Eastern or Southern Europe, even in the face of an economic disaster, the massive redistribution of wealth to the ruling class, the destruction of families and neighborhoods, the outsourcing of industry to the Third World, we seem incapable of rebelling, of “raging against the dying of the light.” Americans seem determined to go quiet into that good night, to plod along, regimented, obedient, spiritually dead.
During Woody and David’s stay in Hawthorne, as we meet his family, his old friends, and their children, Nebraska suggests a possible answer. We are an old, tired, senile culture. Whether physically young, like Woody’s two obese nephews in their early 30s, or old, like his former lover who runs the local newspaper, we are trapped in a cul de sac, a dead purposeless life we not only can’t escape, but have lost even the desire to escape. Hawthorne Nebraska is a town with a few young people who will never have a real life and a great many old people who remember their childhood as though it were yesterday, mostly because nothing ever came in between it and their senility. Their lives are over, and, yet, they’re still waiting for them to begin. We are in Dante’s antepurgtory, in the absurdist, disconnected chatter of a play by Samuel Beckett.
David, recognizing that Woody’s life is nearing its close, gradually loses the heart to wake him up to reality. What reality? When Woody tells his old friends about his fortune, they convince themselves he owes them money, then decide to believe him. In their various attempts to beg, extort, or demand part of his bonanza, the layers of memory are pealed back. A society is revealed, if not necessarily through its greed, but through the idea that it thinks it should be motivated by greed. None of these people really need the money. None of them really want it. There isn’t much to spend it on in Hawthorne, and none of them have any intention of leaving anyway. When they realize that they have been “duped,” that Woody has duped himself, that they have allowed themselves to be sucked into the illusions of a dying old man, their reaction is predictably cruel and predictably meaningless. After Woody insists to David that they go to Lincoln after all, tries to collect the prize money, and finally realizes the truth himself, it brings no enlightenment, not even a resounding sense of defeat. Winning a million dollars was never much of a dream to begin with. It’s just another day, and Woody is one step closer to death.
“I saw their starved lips in the gloam, with horrid warning gaped wide,” John Keats said in his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. “And I awoke and found me here, on the cold hill’s side.”
Nebraska ends on the cold hill’s side, but for Woody there never even was the dream of a beautiful woman without mercy. We realize that there’s no real difference between being asleep and awake, between reality and illusion. We not only awake on the cold hill’s side, we’ve been there all along.