Slightly senile Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) of Billings, Montana is convinced he’s struck it big when he gets a letter from a sweepstakes contest claiming he’s won a million dollars. There’s just one hitch—he needs to get to Lincoln, Nebraska in a few days to collect his winnings, but he can’t drive.
After trying to walk his way to Nebraska several times, Woody’s youngest son, David (Will Forte), drops everything he’s doing to take his father on a road trip to Nebraska, even though he, as well as his older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his mother, Kate (June Squibb), know the sweepstakes contest is a total scam. Along the way, David learns more about his father’s past, especially when they make a stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. Naturally, Woody becomes the talk of the small town as everyone, including his family and his old “friend,” Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), want a slice of Woody’s winnings. But Woody and David find something much better than a million dollars at the end of their journey—the relationship they’ve never had.
Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt, Sideways) is one of my favorite directors. His personal brand of “dramedy” is all about capturing the realism of life, in the way that life is never just comical or dramatic. It’s everything—jealous, depressing, wacky, inspiring. And you can see that in all of his films. I think it’s even more obvious in Nebraska because of his choice to use a black and white filter. Although black and white usually represents two extremes, the use of this particular filter is ironic, as everything in the movie (from the story to the characters) falls in the gray area between black and white (As in, nothing is definable by one extreme emotion). Not to mention, the color scheme sets the “dry humor with a side of depression” tone for the film.
Aging and family are obviously the overarching themes of Nebraska. Woody was a drunk when David was younger, so they never really got to spend a lot of time together, which only makes Woody’s deteriorating mental health more depressing because it seems like David and his father grow farther apart each day. And even though David’s mother and brother are determined to put Woody in a nursing home (because he’s becoming too much of a burden on the family), David refuses because he doesn’t want to admit he’s going to lose his father (which is why he takes Woody on the ridiculous trip to Nebraska). For people with aging parents, I think this will hit home. I even think there’s a message about valuing elders here, as it seems David discovered more about his father’s history and who he was on this weekend trip than he did in his entire life.
I know that might sound depressing, but it’s really not. Like I said, this movie uses dry humor. And there are some seriously funny parts—Woody and David’s talks about Woody’s drinking, Ross and David stealing an air compressor (It’s a long story, but trust me, it’s one of the best scenes of the movie), any time Kate goes on one of her rants about people they grew up with in Hawthorne (specifically the whores and the Lutherans).
Bruce Dern puts in a great performance as the senile Woody (He’s getting nominations left and right). Will Forte (who has received no nominations thus far) also puts in probably the most sympathetic performance of his entire career. But June Squibb, who plays Woody’s wife, is the scene-stealer here (hence her SAG nomination). She was kind of a bitch throughout the movie, which came in handy when she went off on Woody’s family for trying to get a cut of his winnings (I wanted to high-five her). But we also saw her sweet side when she kissed Woody and called him a “big idiot” when he was in the hospital after a dizzy spell (And that’s marriage for you).
Also, because I’m a Nebraskan, you know I have to talk about the Nebraska representation in this movie. Since most of the story takes place in Hawthorne (not a real town, by the way), we see a lot of the Midwestern, small-town stereotype. And let me tell you, having grown up for ten years in a small town before moving to Omaha, this is scarily accurate. The way rumors spread, the cheap bars with wood paneling, the shitty economy that forces young people to leave, the cemetery with entire families—it’s so spot on that I don’t care if everyone on the coasts thinks we’re a bunch of cow people (We’re not, but goddamnit, we love our steak).
Overall, Nebraska is heartfelt, funny, and even a little depressing, but it’s by far one of my favorite movies competing in this year’s awards season. I swear Alexander Payne keeps getting better and better with each of his films. Basically, what I’m saying is that Nebraska definitely deserves the recognition it’s getting. There’s so much depth and realism to the characters and the father-son bonding road trip story. Some people might find the black and white filter or the slow building of the relationship between Bruce Dern’s Woody and Will Forte’s David off-putting or boring, but I personally think it’s excellent filmmaking. I’m crossing my fingers that Bob Nelson wins an award for this screenplay, and I might even start rooting for June Squibb in the supporting actress pool because she’s just fantastic. And no, I don’t just love this movie because I’m a Nebraskan.
For my radio review of Nebraska on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 21:37 mark).