Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk
The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America. The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up. That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world. He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression. His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.
Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape. Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company. His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).
“I didn’t know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it,” she says in one of the movie’s best lines.
What makes Woody’s painful-looking shuffle resonate is not that he is aimless but that his goal is unattainable. David eventually indulges him, embarking on a road trip that lands them, almost too conveniently, in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne is a small Nebraskan village that seems forgotten by time. Payne’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white only enhances this, adding a tinge of melancholy to the wide open plains and quaint, vacant streets.
Word spreads quickly about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot. Despite David’s attempts to quell any celebration of it his father soon becomes the talk of the town, for better and worse. He is envied and celebrated for a while, until family and old friends start to subtly bring up past debts. Woody is oblivious to almost all of this, and Dern gives the impression that his character’s journey is so single-minded because it’s all he has the energy to focus on.
Nebraska’s weakest link is in the way the story forces itself together. There is no real reason why Kate and her and Woody’s oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) need to join them in Hawthorne. After Woody hits his head after a fall, Bob Nelson’s script seems determined to pin him and his family in that town for much longer than Woody would ever actually stay there.
Payne balances the somewhat sloppy story with the most emotionally delicate direction he’s done so far. The Descendants, his previous feature, also had a contrived story, and it felt like it did. Nebraska doesn’t. It unfolds more spontaneously, never a slave to its central plot and much better off for it. It’s an elegiac, bitterly funny examination of the Grants rather than a father/son bonding narrative.
The best scene happens in Hawthorne’s cemetery right after Kate arrives from Montana. She, David and Woody are surrounded by the stumps of countless modest graves. Kate talks blatantly about the people buried beneath them, her crass observations offset by her son’s discomfort and her husband’s weary obliviousness.
Kate’s brazen manner thankfully softens as the movie goes on, creating more than a castrating caricature. Squibb slowly reveals the kindness inside her without failing to skillfully execute many of the script’s best comedic moments. Her and Dern show us a couple hardened by a less-than-ideal life, but still trying to make a go at it.
Nebraska is just as funny and humane as Payne’s best movies. He offers a view of rural America that the Coen brothers might have made if they were (just a little) less condescending. Working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he has also created his most visually accomplished work to date. In films like Sideways and About Schmidt, I remembered the terrific dialogue and the richly conceived characters, and the way Payne found a way to understand them when they seemed unreachable. There weren’t images as memorable as what he has here, though. It is a fairly big leap for him as a filmmaker, with all the imperfection that often comes with such risks.