Taking a cue from Jeff Munroe’s post yesterday about Oscar nominations, in this posting I will muse briefly on one of this year’s Oscar contenders: the fine film by director Alexander Payne of Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern. I have not seen every film made by Mr. Payne but he is right now the most intriguing filmmaker I know of. Mostly I am drawn in by both Payne’s unstinting realism and his desire always to end with a vignette of grace, of hope. (Though be warned: Payne’s films are frequently profane in language–it is part of the realism of the screenplays but if the F-bomb offends, then these films will be off-putting to some, though this is not actually the case with Nebraska. Payne is also an unhurried director: long, lingering shots are common as is an overall narrative pace that will seem very slow to some moviegoers.)
But Payne’s final scenes are never ironic or smirking or flip but shine with a kind of down-to-earth grace. His lovely–but I think underrated–2002 film About Schmidt ends up taking what had appeared to be no more than a semi-comic narrative plot device and transforming it into a lyric moment of beauty and even joy. I won’t get more specific in case you have not seen the film. Similarly, the rollicking–and quite profane–Sideways ends with a hope of renewal (and maturity) for a character whose sorrows in life filled up the screen over and over. And when George Clooney’s character of Matt King gathers to share bowls of ice cream with his two daughters at the end of The Descendants, the viewer senses that much that had been rattled apart and nearly destroyed in this little family unit had somehow come back together. (And oh yes, Payne’s concluding scene is nearly always completely wordless–the images alone deliver the freight of hope.)
The reality of death is never far from most of Payne’s films. In About Schmidt Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is an actuary with a keen sense for calculating when death is likely to come to any given person, including himself. Additionally, when Warren is driving around the country in his RV, he frequently passes by trucks carrying cattle to the slaughterhouse–or to the “abattoir,” a word Payne likes and that I first learned from Sideways as Paul Giamatti’s character of Miles talks about the abattoir as part of his firm awareness of our destiny with death. And, of course, in The Descendants the impending death of the main character’s wife occupies center stage throughout the film.
All of which brings me to the newest film, Nebraska. Shot in black-and-white, there is a bleakness to this film that is embodied by also Bruce Dern’s character of Woody Grant. Woody is an alcoholic on what looks to be his last legs. Even as his wispy white hair flies all over the place overtop of his grizzled and mostly unshaven face, so Woody seems to be lurching his own way toward some kind of chaos that may end in death. But before that happens, Woody undertakes a long trip from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, on the quixotic quest to collect the $1 million promised to him in a rip-off promotional ad he got in the mail but that he took literally. Along the way Woody encounters extended family and old “friends,” most all of whom end up being Calvinist-worthy incarnations of depravity and original sin. The world in this film is a cynical, calculating, and cold place in ways that only Woody seems too good-natured (or is he merely clueless?) to notice.
This film is still new enough–and not yet on OnDemand or BluRay as I write this–that I won’t divulge plot details or the ending here but suffice it to say that somehow human transformation takes place before the film is finished. As in some of Payne’s other films, the hope and the promise of some kind of grace come through the some of the most mundane things imaginable. Nebraska, like Payne’s other films, does not conclude with the swooping down of angels, shafts of light from heaven, or some grand display of large-scale salvation. Rather, grace and hope emerge in and from ordinary things: a voicemail, a letter in the mailbox, a bowl of ice cream, a meaningful glance.
These are not religious films and I have no clue what Alexander Payne thinks about human life or faith. What I do know is that in these films intimations of grace emerge from exactly the same places where we need to see them in even the church and in exactly the kinds of ways for which smart preachers need to be on the lookout so they can lift up these everyday, mundane graces for others to see and to celebrate. “Christ among the pots and pans” is a favorite saying I often quote (from St. Theresa of Avila) and it’s kind of where I find the grace and hope in these films, too.
Life is bleak, the abattoir is out there, people are cruel, and death is indeed our destiny. But in all that there is yet hope and grace and if such things manage to have the last word in Mr. Payne’s films, maybe that is a signpost for those of us with faith to be reminded that grace really does have the last cosmic word on all things, too.