NEBRASKA: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, directed by Alexander Payne (115 min.)
Alexander Payne is a wonderful storyteller. What makes him such a strong filmmaker is his ability to direct what he knows, and what he knows more than anything is his home state of Nebraska. But beyond that, Payne has a keen ear for dialogue and character. The people who fill his screen are real people with real, personal issues, and a tendency to live their lives trying to correct past mistakes. All of these strengths of Alexander Payne’s directing and storytelling are on display in Nebraska, his latest dramedy starring Bruce Dern as an old broken-down man and Will Forte as the son trying to understand him. It is a touching, quiet film, photographed in beautifully sharp black and white. And while it may not be a life changing picture, it most certainly has its finger on the pulse of small-town Midwestern life.
Dern plays Woody Grant, a casual drunk and a rapidly aging man living in Montana with his fiery, loudmouthed wife, Kate (About Schmidt’s June Squibb). As the film opens we see Woody walking along the freeway a few days after snow has covered the landscape. A policeman stops him and Woody explains he is headed to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his million dollars from a bogus sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. You know the ones, just type in your “winning code” and collect your cash. The policeman takes Woody to the station and calls his son, David (Forte), who tries to explain to his father that the sweepstakes letter is a scam. Woody will have none of it, and tries again and again to walk to Nebraska. Finally, David agrees to drive him there, despite the objections of David’s brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk). “Maybe he just needs something to live for” David explains to Ross.
The film then transforms into a brief road picture with Woody and David, until the duo land in Hawthorne, the small Nebraska town of Woody’s youth. Kate and Ross come down and they visit with family and friends for the weekend before David and Woody make the final push to Lincoln Monday morning. It isn’t long before the news spreads that Woody has won a million dollars, and old acquaintances and distant relatives come looking for a handout. The meat of the picture involves these reactions in Hawthorne, where David learns more and more about his father. Never one to divulge his feeling, at least not without assistance from the bottle, Woody has remained a mystery to his sons. Turns out he wasn’t necessarily a bad man, but a man who could never say no to anyone. His charity is like blood in the water to the cousins who demand money owed, and to a former partner (Stacy Keach), looking to be compensated for past business ventures.
The film being in black and white serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it shows the mundane day to day of a Midwestern town, colorless and lifeless and routine. On the other hand, it allows us to concentrate on the richness of character and the dialogue. Dern’s face is like a road map of hard living. He seems distant, hard of hearing, but perhaps he isn’t just paying attention because he’s tired of paying attention. Forte’s David, an electronics salesman whose girlfriend just left him, has a face for dramatic acting despite the fact he made his way on Saturday Night Live. His downturned mouth and sad eyes convey a longing that fits perfectly in these town of Nebraska and Montana, where the world has moved on and forgotten these people. June Squibb’s Kate is sharp as a tack, hard-nosed, and her running joke about all the boys in high school wanting to get “in her trousers” is an amusing aside.
Nebraska is a quiet, serene little slice of life, where the motivation for the plot isn’t nearly as important as the journey and the characters. It is a film about people, not actions. It may be a little slight in the end; the stakes weren’t high enough it seems, or maybe the emotional engagement wasn’t fully realized for me on a personal level. But one thing is certain, and that is Alexander Payne is a filmmaker of truth, who allows his characters to evolve right in front of her eyes, even in these small Nebraska towns where evolution is rarely seen.