Measured, unassuming, gentle, and contemplative, Nebraska is a father-son road trip through an emotionally and economically parched heartland that lingers on the landscapes of a dying vision of the United States. More than ten years after About Schmidt, director Alexander Payne hunts the temper of his 2002 character study to rediscover another dysfunctional family.
Bruce Dern (Coming Home, Monster) is Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic who receives an advertisement declaring that he’s won a million dollars, but must travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska – a distance of 850 miles – to claim his prize. His son David (Will Forte) and wife Kate (June Squibb) are sure Woody’s being duped, and after indulging Woody’s request for him to act as driver, David still remains an unbeliever.
Cantankerous and clueless, bobbing and weaving, Woody is naive, recalcitrant, and incessantly on the lookout to escape David’s clutches, and for another drink. Woody’s a congenial and pitiable character: his stolid willfulness and shaky gait as he lumbers down the highways and laneways of the small towns generates sympathy and disdain from the audience. Dern is outstanding, backing up his Best Actor success at Cannes.
Filmed on location in Nebraska and South Dakota, the natural environment is bleak and desolate, and the script is lyrical, lonesome, and unforgiving. Mark Orton’s fiddle score is aptly hushed and muted. Shot in sleek tones of black and white and silver and grey, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is compositionally splendid, with several moments of still photography echoing an Ansel Adams’ coffee table book. The images are stuffed with an ordinary and serious beauty.
Its workmanlike construction and predictable narrative is sometimes monotonous and mundane, but it’s quite the rebound from the sugary Descendants, and comes close to greatness, largely thanks to the remarkable performances that Payne extracts from Dern and Forte.
Nebraska is minor Payne compared to the robust, full-bodied Sideways, but it is warm, spirited, loping, and absurd. Wryly and acridly humorous, its shuffling rhythm mimics the Midwest’s singular cadences, and it arrives at a kind of gnarled grace that’s true to the sorry old man at its center. In this land of ghosts, one pioneer tries to grab his stake before he becomes another windblown husk. Never forget: when you actually do hit the lottery, don’t tell anyone back home.