Rich Paxson

Last week as I watched the 2013 movie Nebraska on Netflix, I reflected on the relation between memories and individuals’ narratives. I find the idea that memories have the individual, rather than the individual having memories a tough one to integrate into my thoughts and actions.

Nebraska’s storyline is about aging Vietnam Veteran and father Woody, who who takes a road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska with his adult son David. Woody believes that a Million Dollar Prize is waiting for him in Lincoln, because a junk-mail letter that he keeps with him throughout the movie tells him so. Woody is determined to walk to Lincoln if he must in order to get the Prize. Filmed in black and white, Nebraska contrasts Woody’s incoherent longing for the Million Dollar Prize with David’s lifetime of dealing with his father’s addictions and denial.

On the way to Lincoln Woody and David stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska to visit relatives. Woody grew up in Hawthorne, went off to war in Vietnam, and then returned to get married and to begin raising his own family in Hawthorne. Both Woody and the now adult David encounter Hawthorne’s social other, which Woody’s inarticulate, unacknowledged, deeply anguished personal narrative has denied. David discovers details about Woody’s Vietnam experiences, and also about some of the formative events in Woody’s life with his own family of origin. Consequently David can and does begin revising his understanding of Woody’s personal history. The insights gleaned in Hawthorne lead David into growth in understanding and in forgiveness both for his father and for himself.

In spite of, or perhaps because of the darkness in Nebraska, redeeming themes of recognition, repentance and renewal flow beneath the mostly cheerless cinematic surface; which brings to mind Psalm 139:11-12: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is a bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”