Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woodrow ‘Woody’ T. Grant, an elderly resident of Billings, Montana, whose mind has started to fade after years of heavy drinking. Woody becomes determined to make his way to Nebraska come hell or high water, upon receiving a letter notifying him that he’s won a million dollar prize in a marketing sweepstakes campaign.
David (Will Forte), Woody’s grown son, is unable to convince his bullheaded father that this “prize” is nothing more than an obvious scam; and thus, agrees to drive his old man hundreds of miles, in order to reach the promised land of Lincoln, Nebraska. However, on the way there, the modern-day Don Quixote/Sancho duo get waylaid at a small Nebraska town, where Woody and his wife Kate (June Squibb) used to live many years ago.
There, Dave and Woody encounter obstacles in the forms of envious family members – who are convinced that Woody is actually on his way to becoming a millionaire – and Woody’s old acquaintances – some of whom feel that their buddy ought to settle his old scores with them, now that he’s “rich.”
The latest film directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), Nebraska is a cinematically poetic and impartial, yet compassionate examination of a generation of middle-class Americans who have entered the final season of their lives. This is the first of his features that Payne didn’t have a hand in writing (he isn’t credited, anyway), yet the screenplay from Bob Nelson is an observational character study that blends deadpan humor and earnest drama in a manner that recalls Payne’s own script work on films like Citizen Ruth and About Schmidt, in particular.
With Nebraska, Payne returns to the clinical, but humane, storytelling form that was his calling card, prior to him making The Descendants. He and his trusted cinematographer Phedon Papamichael rely heavily on unobtrusive camerawork, often filming whole scenes in uninterrupted wide-angles shots that do not call attention to themselves; and thus, let the individual cast members’ nuanced performances do all the speaking. Indeed, there are several moments in the film where, as a viewer, Payne allows you to experience a wide range of emotions, without forcing you to have one specific reaction. You might well go from laughing at the ordinary Mid-westeners (no sugar coat included) to, merely a second later, feeling disgust, pity, anger or even a heart-warming sensation in response to their actions and behavior.
Such iconographic American landmarks as Mount Rushmore or endless plains of the U.S. heartland become their own characters, in Papamichael and Payne’s hands. The plot beats and human interactions in Nebraska are generally bridged together by wordless (or nearly-wordless) montages and/or purely visual sequences, where the setting is captured in what can be described as a literary fashion. While there’s no denying that the film’s black and white photography effectively creates a mood and sense of place that wouldn’t be possible with a wider range of colors, it’s really the beautifully-composed images of antiquated buildings, rusting farm equipment and heavily-lined human faces that manage to communicate so much about the world of Nebraska (and its history).
Dern, as the cantankerous yet harmless Woody, delivers a stirring performance, despite the fact that the man he’s playing is not entirely there. Woody is convincingly fragile and unstoppable all at once thanks to Dern, who sheds any hint of the sociopathic and psychotic characters he’s played over the years. Furthermore, Nelson’s script doesn’t shy away from revealing the more unscrupulous aspects of Woody’s personality and past, which allows the audience (and, in turn, David) to have a more complex understanding of who this old soul is; and thus, see him as more than a grizzled sad-sack. Ultimately, it’s left open for interpretation, whether you see Woody as being more a victim of others or himself.
Forte leaves his outlandish Saturday Night Live antics behind him, by instead offering a quiet and understated performance as Woody’s put-upon son, David. Much like his old man, David is largely unremarkable and is perhaps as much the cause of disappointment in his own life as those around him. Admittedly, the final destination of David’s personal arc in the movie is somewhat predictable (keeping with road trip movie conventions), yet the final outcome is not quite as cookie-cutter as it might have been. More importantly, Nelson and Payne earn the right to bring closure to the relationship between David and Woody in the way that they do.
Payne and Squibb had worked together once before on About Schmidt, but Squibb’s role in Nebraska is far more worthy of her talent. As Woody’s wife Kate, Squibb is able to transition easily from being judgmental to supportive, disapproving, sentimental and/or even raunchy at the turn of a hat, meaning she essentially steals most of the scenes that she’s in. Kate also serves an important role in the overarching narrative, by filling in the blanks in the main story thread involving Woody and David. Frankly, it would be a shame if Squibb doesn’t get as much awards-season recognition as Dern, based on her work here.
The other important supporting roles in Nebraska include Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) as Woody’s other son Ross, a small-town news anchor, Stacy Keach (Prison Break) as Ed Pegram, Woody’s former business partner, and the many regular people (read: non-actors) and/or character actors who play either members of Woody’s extended family or his former acquaintances: most notably Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as David’s beady-eyed cousins, Bart and Cole. Every one of them is pitch-perfect, as Payne allows his cast room to play their characters as people who can be charming, repugnant, desperate, pitiable and downright hilarious at any time they make an appearance onscreen.
Arguably, the only significant problem with Nebraska is that the conclusion might be a bit too simple and telegraphed for its own good; though, getting hung up on that issue is to miss the forest for the trees. In fact, there are a handful of twists and turns that Nelson’s script for Nebraska takes along the way, which might catch you off-guard (even if you’re able to see where the inevitable final stop on this journey lies ahead of time).
Much like the catchy and folksy instrumental score provided by Mark Orton, Payne’s film (taken as a whole) is really an elegant work of storytelling, which manages to make a thoughtful statement about the current demographic of older Americans – a group that many younger people might otherwise be quick to dismiss as being little more than a hindrance to social/cultural progress, no doubt. In that regard, Nebraska is an engaging, funny and altogether touching road trip that moviegoers of different ages might want to give consideration to taking.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Nebraska:
Nebraska is currently playing in a limited U.S. theatrical release, but will expand to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks. It is 115 minutes long and Rated R for some language.