In the opening scene of Alexander Payne‘s bucolic black-and-white film Nebraska, an elderly, scruffy-haired alcoholic named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sluggishly, but unyieldingly walks on the side of the interstate. One would think that he’s lost and just trying to find his way home, but in fact, that isn’t the case whatsoever. This is one of many attempted escapes from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska so he can claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize he received in the mail, which he’ll use to purchase an air compressor and a new truck even though he can no longer drive. Ignoring the warning signs that the prize is a scam, Woody is insistent on making his way to Lincoln and its his insistency that puts the small-scale, but beautifully engaging and character-driven narrative of Nebraska into gear.
People close to Woody, such as his distraught and foul-mouthed wife Kate (June Squibb) and his older, newscaster son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), believe that he has completely lost his already fading mind. Kate is endlessly annoyed by Woody’s constant escape attempts and perhaps, even more so, is fed up with his hazy eccentrics. Woody’s youngest son David (Will Forte) is the only one who, despite his seemingly estranged relationship with his father, sticks to Woody’s side when threats are made of forcing Woody into a nursing home. Dave is the first to try to explain to his father that the one million-dollar prize is a scam for the publishing firm to gain more magazine subscriptions, but decides to let him find out for himself as he agrees to drive him to Lincoln. David, who was recently dumped by his girlfriend of two years, decides to take the opportunity to temporarily escape from his banal life and possibly reconnect with his father.
Much of the film, written by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson, takes time off the road and in the rustic town of Hawthorne, Nebraska for a family reunion that eventually goes awry after some of Woody’s relatives and former acquaintances become greedy vultures after he lets it slip that he has won a million dollars. In a Midwestern town that is clearly in a dire economic situation, Woody quickly becomes a celebrity as the word about his winnings spreads. This, of course, leads to more problems, especially for David as he’s trying to keep his father out of the way from Woody’s greedy former acquaintance named Ed (Stacy Keach) and his witless, car-crazy cousins. As David tries to keep his father under control, he learns more about his heavy-drinking father as his past conflicts start to resurface.
Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Dern gives one of the best and most heartbreaking performances of the year as Woody, an alcoholic who stumbles through life and has seemingly caused hardship to his wife and sons. His facial expressions suggest hazy confusion when around his family, but determination and hope by a flip of a switch whenever the topic of discussion is about his winnings. His character becomes more complex as David and the audience discovers more about Woody’s complicated past. More than halfway through the film, there’s a scene which David, Ross, and Kate take Woody back to the farmhouse where he grew up in. Woody doesn’t say much at all as they slowly move through the abandoned house, recollecting memories as they move from room to room. Outside of the house, Woody appears to be in emotional pain as Kate asks him about the house. “Just a bunch of old wood and weeds,” Woody replies. Judging from the pain in Woody’s eyes, the house is much more than just old wood and weeds to him. It’s a vessel of memories that Woody would rather forget than remember. Dern‘s performance during that scene, and throughout the entire film for that matter, is worthy of not only another Oscar nomination for Dern, but also a win.
Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte is especially surprising as David, a soft-spoken salesman of a local appliance store who was recently dumped by his girlfriend of two years. For the role, he throws away his usual comedic shtick and gives a more reserved and admirable performance. June Squibb‘s performance as Kate elicits most of the laughs with her uncharacteristic behavior. There’s a memorable scene that takes place in a graveyard where Kate speaks ill of Woody’s deceased relatives. The scene and her performance is darkly comedic, a bit reckless and revealing as Kate drops little hints about her own past that makes Kate anything but a two-dimensional secondary character. Bob Odenkirk is really good as Ross. Even though he’s given a very small amount of screen time, he’s on screen in some of the most memorable sequences, such as a scene when him and David attempt to steal an old air compressor. Stacy Keach is equally as great as Ed, the greedy antagonist of the film who claims that Woody all of a sudden owes him money that he had borrowed years ago.
After leaving the Midwestern landscape for the more temperate settings of the Californian wine country in Sideways and the sandy beaches of Hawaii in The Descendants, director Alexander Payne has returned to his home state for what’s one of his best films that, much like his previous work, is often heartbreaking that’s ultimately balanced with doses of understated humor. In Nebraska, Payne beautifully documents the Midwest, a slice of American landscape that has gone mostly unnoticed in cinema. With the use of Phedon Papamichael‘s smartly used black-and-white cinematography, Payne manages to create a grey-scale vision of the Midwest that’s beautifully in-tune with not only the narrative, but also the central characters who lead muted lives. Although the film is smaller in scale, Nebraska fits perfectly in Payne‘s repertoire of satirical, observant and humanistic dramedies. It’s a wee-bit softer than his earlier, more satirically spirited efforts such as Citizen Ruth and Election, but the film still has a satirical edge when depicting certain elements of the Midwestern landscape that Payne is all too familiar with.
For an example, David’s bumbling cousins satirically spews nothing but cars and driving distances. Although this may come across as offensive for some, as they may think that Payne is making a mockery of his characters, it must be known that Payne understands the characters within this world because he comes from the same world. Especially true in his 2002 film About Schmidt and Nebraska, Payne asserts that it’s okay to find ordinary funny. As someone who’s from a small town in Wisconsin, I’m familiar with this landscape that Payne has portrayed in Nebraska. I’ve met some of these characters, or at least a version of them, who are seemingly closed off and don’t have much to say. I’m even familiar with these small towns that, much like Hawthorne, consist of a whole lot of nothing besides a few houses and a couple bars. In fact, the very house that I grew up in resembled Woody’s brother’s house by being very lived-in with dated furniture and décor. The personal connection I had to the film exemplifies Payne‘s masterful attention to detail of recreating Midwestern Americana. This gives an edge to him as a filmmaker as he’s one of the very few who understands and appreciates where he came from.