It’s a long walk from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. – anywhere between 850 and 902 miles, depending on which road you take. But that’s the walk crusty and slightly addled Woody Grant has just set out on in the opening frames of Nebraska native Alexander Payne’s newest film. Payne has been nominated numerous times for directing and writing awards from the folks at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and he’s nabbed the scripting gold for “The Descendants,” “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.”
His name will likely be on those short lists again, but this time so will that of Bruce Dern, who, playing Woody, has gotten and delivered one of the best roles of his career. Woody’s taking that walk to Nebraska to claim the million dollar prize he won in one of those magazine sweepstakes contests. He lost his driver’s license due to excessive drinking, and no one – not his wife, neither of his two sons – is going to give him a ride. And since he won’t listen to anyone that’s trying to tell him the prize is bogus, he hits the highway on foot, only to be stopped immediately by the cops.
As Payne has done in all of his previous films (most of them set in Nebraska), he introduces us to his characters, then allows us to get inside their heads. Actually, much of that was done here by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson, and this is the first film Payne has directed that he hasn’t also written. But it’s Payne that lets his actors know what he wants from them to get the story told and the characters understood, then steps back and lets them do it.
The business of the million dollars keeps coming up, and keeps pushing the plot along, but it’s the people that take the front seat here. Dern’s Woody is a man of few words, and probably always has been. He’s a retired auto mechanic, a nice guy who’s always helped others and now, without much money, but seeing what he believes is a jackpot flashing in front of his eyes, he expects people to help him in return.
But his wife, Kate (June Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt”), is at her wit’s end with him, and his sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte) have no idea what to do about dear old dad. Well, it’s really only David that would use that loving term on him. Kate is fed up with years of neglect (and let’s not forget that drinking), and Ross is just too selfishly busy to have any concern about dad’s crazy ideas. It’s David who sees that there’s a problem and would like to help, even if the only way he can think to go about it is to give his dad a ride to where he wants to go.
Page 2 of 2 - So we get a road-trip movie, a father-son relationship movie, a husband-wife relationship movie, a pie-in-the-sky dreamer movie ... the list could go on. It also includes an examination of what happens when old friends, if they ever really were friends, are led to believe that someone in their group has stumbled onto some good fortune. So we also get the story of Woody’s long ago rocky business relationship with the blustery Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and it’s not very pretty.
But the movie sure is, physically. It’s shot in stark and stunning black and white, and Payne and his longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael use it in a remarkable manner, both to catch an other-worldly look at the western landscape and to give us subtly breathtaking close-up looks at a variety of faces.
“Nebraska” is a serious film about a dysfunctional family, the patriarch of which might be delusional. But the beauty of its script is that, at all the right moments, it’s sweet and touching and absolutely hilarious (thank you, June Squibb, for your comic timing). One of its nicest surprises is that it’s just as much David’s story as it is Woody’s, and they’re both people to root for.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Bob Nelson; directed by Alexander Payne
With Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach