Nebraska is like discovering a crumpled old black and white photograph. Memories come flooding back, stories from the past are uncovered, and regret sinks in as the young faces in the images, now old, muse on their mistakes. Director Alexander Payne crafts a striking portrait of a dysfunctional family and a refined piece of Americana that contains a wonderfully dry sense of humour.
The elderly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter informing him that he has won a million-dollar mega sweepstakes marketing prize. Woody is intent on claiming the money and begins walking to from Montana to Nebraska but the police always manage to stop him. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to take responsibility and entertain his father’s fantasy by driving him cross-state to claim the prize in hopes it will put the matter to rest. During the road trip the pair stop in Woody’s home town, Hawthorne, where the residents are excited that one of their own is a millionaire.
Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson pack a lot into this quaint film and it’s incredibly effective balancing the father and son relationship, family drama and exploration of small town America that is like Woody; a little worse for wear. Dern’s performance is incredible and the actor manages to convey so much heartache and regret with minimal dialogue. Dern’s frail portrayal adds a heartbreaking edge to the senile state of the character that is hunched over, lumbering around and bandaged up due to various knocks. There’s always the ticking clock of fate over the character’s head and Dern gives urgency to each action as if he’s painfully aware of death. Forte is wonderfully tolerant and forgiving as David and does a fantastic job of allowing his eccentric co-stars to shine by playing ‘straight’ to the kookiness around him. Payne and Nelson craft brutally honest bonding moments between the duo as David airs his grievances over his father’s poor parenting, and Woody tries to pass on some wisdom to his son. In one scene Woody says to David while sitting in a bar ‘have a drink with your old man, be somebody’. Underlying Woody and David’s time together is a beautiful bond between father and son that’s completely unspoken in all its masculine glory but it resonates in every frame.
While Woody and David are in Hawthorne they are joined by Mrs Grant (played by the wonderfully lively June Squibb) who has an attuned sense for town gossip and an acute knowledge of the Grant family tree. Through his mother’s candour (again, Squibb is amazing in full roar) and interactions with the residents, David slowly learns about the life his parents had before he existed. Payne intricately captures the illuminating moment of realising your parents weren’t always just ‘mum and dad’. In these interactions Nelson is able to illuminate Woody’s past and the reason for the distant look in his eye. The meaning of the expedition becomes more than just a reason to sedate Woody’s desire for a million dollars but a means for Woody to show to his family and friends that he became somebody.
The way Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael capture the landscape make Middle America look like a degraded memory. The scenery is stunning in a special downtrodden kind of way that often feels like each structure is a forgotten antique. It’s not all gloom and doom with flourishes of wit from the ideals of the elderly characters that inhabit the countryside with their blunt honesty and simple ways. David wearily navigates the terrain of Woody’s eccentricities, his mother’s obscenities and the haze of ignorant bliss that surrounds the townspeople of Hawthorne and it’s hard not to chuckle at the oddities on show. The Hawthornians reaction to Woody’s phantom millions provides a few humorous moments as well as revealing the desire for wealth in a financially strained town which could be Payne and Nelson commenting on the wounded ideals of contemporary America.
Nebraska is a sublime piece of cinema that’s densely layered and packed with emotion. Payne proves the modest stories can be the most powerful.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW