Despite being an Alexander Payne fan, I was not particularly pumped to see Nebraska, a seemingly bleak, black and white road movie following a sad old guy. To be honest, nothing really grabbed me in the film’s opening minutes, and I was fully prepared for a major downer of a movie that veered dangerously close to a coastal director’s ridicule of those living in the flyover states. But at some point very early in, Nebraska becomes a very touching film, albeit a quiet and reflective one. By the end of the movie, I was so surprised at how satisfied I felt leaving the theater that it took some effort to remember my hesitations going in. In short: Nebraska is a charming and surprising movie that exceeds all expectations.
The film’s major selling point is its star, Bruce Dern, who made a career out of playing villainous oddballs, despite never really having the personality to pull off a leading player’s role. Dern plays Woody Grant, an ancient, quixotic figure who intends to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska from his home in Billings, Montana to collect a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. His acidic wife (played by a brilliant June Squibb) and dopey son (a charmingly goofy, yet subtle, performance from Will Forte) tries to convince him that the letter he’s received announcing his winnings is a scam, but Woody, nearly silent throughout the picture, refuses to accept it. He’s determined to make it to Lincoln, on foot if he has to, because he has plans to buy a new truck and an air compressor (the latter to replace one he lent to a friend 40 years before, the former because, as he later states, he’s never had a brand-new truck).
Forte’s David, fresh out of a break-up and working an unfulfilling job selling electronics, offers to drive his father the 700-plus miles to Lincoln. They don’t make it too far before Woody manages to drunkenly stumble into their anonymous Midwest hotel room, giving himself a gash on his forehead. Instead of making it straight to Lincoln, the two are rerouted to Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up, met his wife, and still has family. Joining them for a mini family reunion are his wife, Kate, and David’s older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk, who, like Forte, excels in the rare straight-man role), a TV reporter on the verge of becoming a Billings anchorman.
It’s not long into their stay in Hawthorne that Woody’s old connections come out of the woodwork, especially as the small-town game of Telephone reveals to his old friends, neighbors, and loved ones why he’s headed to Lincoln. Despite David’s insistence that Woody hasn’t won a damn thing, plenty of people in town express their local pride in knowing a sudden millionaire, and both his family members and former business partner, Ed (a large and particularly scary Stacy Keach), suggest that Woody owes them a percentage of his million dollars for their support during his early years, when his alcoholism resulted in money problems.
While David and Woody eventually make it to Lincoln, it’s not surprising how the trips turns out — you can figure out pretty early in the film that Woody will experience some crushing disappointment. Without spoiling anything, however, there is a happy ending, and one that doesn’t feel like a major cheat. But this isn’t a film one goes to for a complicated story, nor are there any major revelations about Woody’s life. The latter is the point: David, who it’s clear does not have a very strong with relationship with his father, learns little information about him through their trip, and he doesn’t connect with him much more, either. But he does come to understand some of the reasons why Woody is the way he is: a silent man who went through his life without asking questions about what he wanted or what he should want.
While Nebraska does have moments of humor in which these small-town characters are the butts of the joke, the Omaha-raised Payne depicts his characters in a very loving, affectionate way: it’s the limited options that they have that shape their lives, and despite everything, these people are doing the best that they can. They aren’t immune to the disappointments, but it’s in the context of their upbringings that we find an appreciation for their behavior and personalities. (As someone who grew up in a rural, economically depressed area, those sentiments rang particularly true for me.)
While Bruce Dern will likely win the most accolades out of this subtle yet stellar cast (he won the Best Actor award earlier this year at Cannes), it’s the stunning June Squibb who delivers the standout performance in the film. Nebraska is a movie about a father-son relationship, and the emotional machismo on display can get to be a little much. As Woody’s beleaguered and bitter wife, Squibb gets the funniest lines — one of her best scenes involves a trip to the Hawthorne cemetery, where she drops burns on the final resting places of Woody’s dead relatives and other members of their generations who were perhaps lucky enough to pass on early. Her anger toward her husband’s misguided optimism and the strife it brings aside, you can tell that Kate is a woman who loves her family despite the struggles they bring her; she’s the one who most successfully stands up for her clan in the face of the vultures in Hawthorne who attempt to bring them down. Kate is a saving grace in a film that, without the feminine presence, could have become just another movie about fathers and sons. I hope that the relatively unknown Squibb gets as much critical adoration as her more famous co-star.