Written by Robert W. Nelson (101 pages)
Nebraska is a story about an old man, Woody, who’s convinced he has won a million dollars and must go to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. Woody’s family debates his senility, and his son, David, ultimately decides to indulge his father out of respect and a subconscious recognition that his own life is floundering and if he can help his father find some purpose, maybe he can do the same for himself. Under the surface of this premise, though, the story is about a town that has run rampant over Woody throughout his life, taking and taking from him because he was too polite to stop them. Through their travels, David learns about his father and his family history and renews his faith in where he’s headed.
Act 1: (Page 1 – 23.5)/Sequence 1: (page 1 – 12.5)
We establish Woody’s distance from reality and David as an enabler who also needs a bit of an escape from his own reality (his girlfriend Noel left him), so he identifies with Woody on some level. David’s mother, Kate, and brother, Ross, are on the other side of the spectrum. Kate reminds David that Woody doesn’t know what he wants, and Ross reminds David that Woody never cared about them when they were kids, “he never gave a shit about you or me.”
Many of these early scenes are still all about exposition: in one example, starting on page 8 to the bottom of page 10, we meet David’s brother Ross, establish Ross’ stance on the issue of what to do with Woody (he’s on mom’s side), establish that David is enabling Woody when he shouldn’t, establish that Ross is successful (which is meant to say something about David by comparison), and reinforce Woody’s determination as well as to establish a glimpse of Woody as a father before he got dementia (he wasn’t good to the boys). In this scene, narratively, there is no forward progress. David feels the same, Ross feels the same, Woody feels the same, Kate feels the same, we just get more information.
In these first 12 pages, we are also establishing the pattern of Woody’s behavior and his stubbornness. We meet him when he’s walking along a highway and gets pulled over by a patrolman. Then he keeps wandering away, showing that nothing will make him stop.
Inciting Incident (halfway down page 12): Woody points out that David has nothing going on so he should take Woody to Nebraska. The inciting incident, then, isn’t the presentation of the opportunity to go to Nebraska, just the actual decision to go to Nebraska. Another film might structure it so that the inciting incident is the news that Woody won a million dollars (he thinks), then we get the deliberation as everyone thinks he’s crazy, and ultimately David will decide to take him which would normally be the lock in moment to end act 1.
This is the moment that leads to the inciting incident:
Sequence 2: (page 12.5 to 23.5)
Kate takes it a step further, telling David he is just like his father. So now there are more dramatic stakes. This isn’t about just Woody, it’s also about David. He senses his life heading a certain direction, and he sense that his father’s life is already where David thinks he himself will end up. If he can help out his father, then he can help out himself.
In the first scene on the road, bottom of page 13, we see David tell his father he can’t drive. When Woody says he doesn’t drink, David makes a sarcastic remark, knowing his father does drink. So we establish that while David is willing to indulge his father on this trip, he’s still going to keep him in check. By doing this, David is putting space between them, as if to reassure himself that he’s not like his father.
David and Woody stop by Mt. Rushmore, but Woody protests, wanting nothing except to get to Lincoln, Nebraska as soon as possible. When they do see Mt. Rushmore, Woody remarks that it looks unimpressive and only unfinished if anything. David considers that his father might have a point.
Later, Woody falls (he’s been drinking) and David takes him to the ER. This is of narrative consequence since the doctor thinks Woody should stay at the hospital for observation, holding them back. David decides this means they have to go back home because David needs to return to Billings for work on Monday (he can’t quit his job), revealing that we really haven’t gotten to the “lock in” moment since David knows he has an out. This is more deliberation, the type of deliberation you expect in the second sequence of a movie.
There is then a scene to establish that they have family willing to put them up in Hawthorne over the weekend. This is important because they don’t just decide to see their relatives, instead there’s a purpose the relatives fulfill, justifying their role in the story (to give David and Woody a place to stay).
Before they get to Hawthorne, Woody directs David to a spot from his childhood (old motel). Woody is beginning to open up.
Act 1 ends with David and Woody arriving Hawthorne, locking them into this journey. Because the lock in involves the pair arriving in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown and where their extended family lives, it demonstrates that the bulk of the story will deal with family and the past. Lincoln is just a bookend to the meat of the story.
Act 2: (page 23.5 – page 77.5)/Sequence 3 (pages 23.5 – 36):
We establish David’s aunt, uncle and cousins. His uncle is just like his father (they’re brothers), and his aunt is lively, like his mother. Basically his aunt/uncle reflect his own parents, but his cousins challenge David, because he doesn’t want to be anything like them but worries he might be.
Woody and David visit a garage he claims to have once owned (though we doubt him). He tries to correct a mechanic, and the scene serves to demonstrate how Woody is off his rocker (constant push/pull of is Woody of sound mind). It also further establishes the character of Ed Pegram, Woody’s old pal. Ed’s name was mentioned in act 1 when Woody said that Ed has Woody’s air compressor.
Then the father and son go to a bar where we learn more about their history. David doesn’t drink, unlike his father the alcoholic, but he decides this time he will have a drink. Everything seems nice until we cut to later in the conversation in which David begins throwing questions at Woody about how Woody and Kate ended up together. This happens immediately after David tells Woody that he and his girlfriend broke up. It’s another sign that he identifies with his father. He thinks about the break up and his next thought is his parents’ relationship.
They get into an argument about Woody’s alcoholism (after David is disturbed by how little Woody thought about marriage, kids, etc.). The progression is from why Woody and Kate stayed together –> David asks if he ever thought of leaving her –> Woody says he’d end up with someone else who gives him shit –> David defends his mom, saying she put up with his drinking for years, and this leads into the argument about alcoholism which progresses to David knowing his dad was an alcoholic as a kid. It’s the pivot from getting along to argumentative.
This is the most drastic scene, starting off with them getting along, and ending with Woody telling David that it’s not his job to tell him what to do. First line in the scene: “Did you and mom used to come here?” and last line, from Woody: “It ain’t your job to tell me what to do, you little cocksucker!” This is also the most tense their relationship has been.
They don’t address their fight. Instead Woody marches on down the street, drawn to the blinking light of a tavern. It attracts Woody like he’s a moth drawn to a porch light. At the new bar they see Ed Pegram, who we’ve seen discussed twice as someone who Woody used to work with and who owes Woody an air compressor. Woody, wanting to bask in the pleasure of the people around him, mentions the money which is problematic since people will believe him… and it’s dangerous.
Sequence 3 ends with Woody bringing up that he’s a “millionaire.” It’s new information, not to us, but to the characters around him and fundamentally changes his relationship with the people around him. This ends on the top of page 36).
We also see how this news makes Woody come alive; it gives him purpose. So this scene represents new danger and shows some progression within Woody.
Sequence 4 (page 37 – 45):
Page 37: Martha says, “Woody here’s the talk of the town.”
Now everyone in town goes up to Woody like they all know him. It’s the life he briefly mentioned he once had at the bar (“I used to know everyone here.”). We see that this ticket and this news makes him come alive. David perhaps has indulged his father too far, judging by the townsfolk who smell blood in the water.
Kate arrives the next day, a stabilizing force as things are getting chaotic, and David has had trouble containing his father. The first thing Kate says is, “you both look like hell,” putting David and Woody in the same boat.
We get this exchange…
…highlighting David’s point of view and Kate’s point of view. They’re in opposition.
A few moments later, Kate tells David, “You watch it, or that’s what you’re going to turn into,” playing off David’s real fear of becoming his father. The first half of the story is very much David’s fear of becoming his father, and the second half of the story will show why David should be proud of being like his father.
Kate leads David and Woody to the cemetery where she points out a grave and says to her son, “That’s Woody’s brother David. You were named after him. He died of scarlet fever when he was only two. Woody slept in the same bed with him but never got over it.” This sheds light on David’s name and his relationship with his father because his father honored him with the name David. The scene action then says “David contemplates the sight of his own name on a headstone.” He’s staring at his death, future, etc.
The cemetery also features Kate going on and on about the dead, not respecting them as most people do. It’s an unflattering portrait of life after death, reinforcing the idea that what’s important is the present.
Later, a high school photographer swings by to take Woody’s photo for the newspaper. They’re writing an article on Woody winning his million dollars.
midpoint = Page 45 (almost exactly halfway). The midpoint is a pivot because we’ve noewfully committed to a new character goal: whereas before David wanted to take care of Woody and help him by indulging his fantasy, now he has to protect him from people looking for handouts from his million dollars.
Sequence 5: (page 45 – page 66)
David goes to see Peg at the small newspaper. There he learns more about his father, that he was shot down in Korea. It gives David more sympathy for Woody, and he’s starting to be less fearful and more prideful of his father and his family.
Peg tells David about Woody, “People took advantage of him. He couldn’t turn down a favor.” This takes on new meaning since people think Woody won a million dollars and Woody does too.
We see David and his parents out at dinner that night. There is a wonderful bit of dialogue that demonstrates the differences amongst David, Woody and Kate:
We know Kate is more controlling with Woody, much different than David who indulges his father. We know that Kate is proud and stubborn, and we know that David is a peace-maker, trying to soothe things over.
Then they see Ed, singing karaoke onstage. Ed calls out Woody as a celebrity. This heightens the threat as the townsfolk are like piranhas.
Ed approaches David in the bathroom and makes the threat much more clear:
David tells his parents about Ed asking for money. Woody says he can give him some money, Kate says, “like hell you will.”
Back at Ray and Martha’s house, there’s a bit of a pause narratively speaking, so we see Woody try to push things along, waking David up so they can go to Lincoln. David tells Woody they will go tomorrow, and he reminds Woody and the audience that Woody’s brothers are coming over that afternoon. David asks Woody about Peg Bender, and Woody seems reluctant to talk about it. He’s distressed that David brought it up, and this raises questions about Woody’s past.
When the brothers come over, we glimpse the men and their limited conversation as well as a the women in the kitchen and their conversation, which serves to highlight how Kate doesn’t quite fit in (she speaks bluntly).
Ross’s arrival helps speed up the plot. He’s more willing to be confrontational than David, so the inevitable conflict comes much more quickly. The family asks Woody about the money, and he says his plan is to buy a truck and an air compressor. Ross cuts in and insists the winnings aren’t real, but the family takes that to mean that Ross is trying to cut them out of what they consider owed to them.
Also at dinner, David and Ross come up with two plans: to steal back Woody’s air compressor from Ed Pegram and to see Woody’s old home.
After dinner, Ross and Cole get into a fight that feels like it’s about more than just money. It starts with Cole insinuating that Woody owes the family a lot of money. To help their argument, Cole and company shit on Woody’s character, claiming he hasn’t made good on money he owes them. Kate steps in to stop the physical fight. She tells Aunt Betty: “[Woody] couldn’t say no to anybody, and it ruined him.” This really makes the image clear of the family as leeches, and that’s why they haven’t seen each other in so long.
Kate puts her foot down, tells the family to fuck off, and says even if there was money, they wouldn’t give them any. This moment has made concrete the conflict between the family that started calcifying starting with sequence 4 (page 37), and was heightened and made more legitimate at the midpoint (page 45).
Sequence 6: (Page 66 – 77.5):
The family goes to Woody’s old house. It’s thematically important, I think, that we see Woody’s dilapidated childhood home immediately after the fight in which Kate seems to permanently sever the family connection. The present is broken and we’re reminded that the past is broken.
Woody tells David that Woody’s father built the house, and David is impressed by this. It’s the second moment, after hearing his father was shot down in Korea, that David hears something that makes him think differently/positively of his family and the men before him.
This highlights how David thinks about the past, and it weighs him down, but it doesn’t for Woody. David could learn a thing or two from his old man.
When the immediate family (Kate, Woody, Ross, David) leave the old home, they drive pass a number of houses about which Kate knows everything: who lived there, who’s in a nursing home, who’s dead, whose children are failures, etc.)
Then Kate mentions Ed Pegram’s house when they pass, and David and Ross decide to make good on their plan to steal the air compressor for their father. It’s mostly about revenge, though, as Ed has proven himself to be an asshole. The boys steal the air compressor before Woody reminds Kate that that house belonged not to Ed, but to the Westendorfs, who are very nice people, Kate adds. The brothers return the air compressor to the barn, but then the Westendorfs show up, complicating matters. Kate covers for her sons and spins a story about stopping by to say hi. Then the boys race up to the car as she slowly drives it away and they get away safely.
That scene is a moment that helps bond the family together. Now they’re not fighting with each other or about Woody. Instead they’re unified which is important because of the opposition they face in the next scene… this previous scene is like moving troops into position. It’s putting things in place. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was just a placeholder scene that said: “must unify the family” and then they reverse engineered a way that could happen.
Next they’re back at the tavern where Ed, the closet thing to a villain, is hanging out. We know based on his previous threat to David that someithing will happen, paying off the set up of everyone hearing Woody is a millionaire, which set up what could happen and this moment will show what does happen.
The family unity faces a challenge when Ed shows up…
…and this is a payoff of that earlier conversation between David and Woody about how Woody and Kate ended up together. It’s also a payoff of when Woody didn’t want to talk about an old flame, Peg Bender, to David.
Woody and David leave the bar, and they’re attacked by two hooded men who knock them over and steal the ticket.
Act 3: (page 77.5 to the end, 91)/Sequence 7: )page 77.5 – 83.5)
David knows that it was Bart and Cole who mugged them. He confronts them, and the two cousins remark how the ticket is bogus. They threw it away and have nothing more to say. It’s a clear demonstration of how they consume what might be useful to them and discard it when there is nothing they can gain.
David indulges his father and suggests the robbers may have lost the ticket and that they should go look for it. They do this briefly before making their way to the tavern where Ed Pegram is even more of an asshole, mocking Woody and somehow showing even more of an ugly side, by reading the ticket, which he has found. It’s clearly a scam, as David, Ross and Kate knew all along.
Now, however, everyone in town knows the ticket is fraudulent. People laugh and mock Woody, following Ed’s lead. It’s another sign of how hostile this quiet town is. You’re either there for their benefit or for their entertainment.
David has had enough and punches Ed, tired of him trying to rip apart his family and humiliate his father. Once outside, Woody and David get into an argument (which is the climax of the film)…
Woody gives up on the fight, and David takes Woody to the hospital (because of his injuries following the mugging).
Sequence 8 (83.5 – 91):
At the hospital we get a moment of tenderness between Kate and Woody. They love each other. The next morning, Woody gets out and starts walking (like at the beginning of the story), and David decides to finish the journey to Lincoln. David even gives Woody a beer in a paper bag for the road. He’s taking care of his father.
They arrive at their destination which is appropriately underwhelming. The lady tells Woody he didn’t win, basically nothing surprising. Then she offers him a choice of two objects as a prize, and Woody chooses the hat.
The theme of the movie is basically stated in this exchange between David and the woman…
Poor ‘ol Woody. As has been stated, he gets taken advantage of because he believes in people. Because of that he is chewed up and spit out.
David trades in his car for a pickup truck and says he put it in his father’s name. Woody believes it’s part of the prize winnings, and David doesn’t correct him. David then buys a new air compressor for his dad, now a pay off of earlier when Woody said with the million dollars he’d buy a new truck and an air compressor. Finally, David lets Woody drive through town, giving him his last moment and saving his pride. David recognizes and appreciates his father’s faith in people, possibly noticing how he can learn something by all this. By letting his father drive through town on his own, for all to see, David makes sure that Woody’s hometown sees him for the final time as a winner.
The story’s sequence breakdown, with what happens to begin each sequence:
Sequence 1: Introduce characters, setting, the “million dollars”
Sequence 2: David decides to drive his father to Nebraska.
Sequence 3: David and Woody arrive in Hawthorne, to stay with family.
Sequence 4: Woody tells Ed about the million dollars.
Sequence 5: the whole town learns about the million dollars.
Sequence 6: the extended family gets into a fight the relatives want their share of the money and Kate and company insist that the money isn’t real, which the relatives take to mean it is real, they’re just keeping it for themselves.
Sequence 7: After Ed again demands his share of the money, Woody and David are mugged, losing the “million dollar” ticket.
Sequence 8: The immediate family reconvenes at the hospital where Woody is treated for mugging-induced injuries; David gears up for his final plan to help save his father’s dignity.
Each sequence starts with a moment that pivots the story. It either changes direction or accelerates the direction the story was already headed.