“Nebraska” is the latest from writer/director Alexander Payne, and it’s his best work since 2004’s “Sideways”. It tells the simple story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (former SNL star, Will Forte) as they drive from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska so he might claim his fortune. The promised fortune is a million dollar prize that he supposedly won in a magazine sweepstakes offer, though none of his immediate family believes it. He, on the other hand, seems to believe it with every fiber of his being because he was nothing else going for him. Along the way they retrace his life and get a better glimpse of the somewhat confused and grumpy old timer who may be nearing the end (of coherence, at least).
This is an excellent movie and a moving one. One the one hand it tells a story of familial bonding that perhaps isn't so unique, but what makes it fresh here is the setting and the atmosphere. It’s very much an intimate view of the Midwest and Midwestern life, particularly the lower middle class. These are people who have very little and even less to do. They drink, they watch TV, and maybe discuss cars from thirty years ago with vague interest.
The prospect of the cash prize not only gives Woody purpose but makes him the toast of the town, also bringing out the ugliness in just about everyone they encounter. The old relations all want a piece of it, refusing to accept the idea that maybe there’s nothing to it other than a foolish old man’s dreams. It’s partly a comedy and there’s an obvious humor to it all, but it’s also a very bleak setting, emphasized by the use of black and white imagery, which feels so natural here with the vast empty surroundings and the basic bare-bones way of life.
Adding this, there’s a lot of emotional weight to the characters and this dismal world. All the characters they meet are old friends and family to Woody, and his son, in a desperate attempt to piece together who his father is before it’s too late, learns details of a life he knew very little about. The acting from the central family is excellent, with standout performances from both Will Forte (in a surprisingly convincing dramatic turn) and Bob Odenkirk, but it’s the acting from their parents, Bruce Dern and June Squibb, that drive home the emotional resonance.
Bruce Dern gives an incredibly nuanced and introverted performance as the father desperately clinging to what may be the last glimmer of hope in his otherwise colorless world. His mind is going and his years of hard drinking have taken their toll, but his stubbornness and single-mindedness refuse to allow him give in. As he relives various places and acquaintances from his past, it’s displayed almost entirely in his face and his eyes. The character speaks very plainly and often mishears what others say (to comedic effect), but his reactions to his old childhood home or the graves of his family members are all too real.
On the other side of the spectrum is Kate, the feisty wife of Woody (as played brilliantly by June Squibb). She’s one of those people that are about as blunt and realistic as it gets, never choosing to say something nice or polite out of fear of social acceptance. She tells it like she sees it, and adds a tremendous amount of energy and character to the drab life of their existence. It can be hard be difficult to live with, but in the right circumstances there’s no else you’d rather have in your corner.
“Nebraska” is Alexander Payne’s strongest work since “Sideways”, and the intimacy of their little world feels real, like we've been taken into it. There’s doesn't seem to be any condescension towards Midwesterners or an attempt to make them out to be cartoon caricatures, but I imagine it hits very close to home. It’s well staged, beautifully shot, and moving to go on the journey with these characters. Even in a world of dull grey and stagnant life, there can still be found hope and the little victories.