In Nebraska, Alexander Payne paints a deceptively simple portrait of a complex character who’s become a withdrawn shell of a human being by a combination of senility, drink and disillusionment. Filmed in immaculate black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska transforms the Midwestern landscape of its titular region, with its endless highways, expanses of farm country and small, desolate towns into settings befitting the film’s themes of despair and one family’s quiet yet profound healing. The end result is Payne’s most accomplished and emotionally affecting movie since his masterwork, About Schmidt (2002). It’s a character study fashioned like a detective story; as viewers, we have to discover for ourselves a sense of Woody’s personal and family history through clues dropped in bits of dialogue and in the subtle dynamics between Woody and his world.
This is a family odyssey that begins as a road-trip variation on the father-son bonding story. Determined to redeem a notice that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, a bald-faced scam apparent to all but himself, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the cash. Hoping that by indulging this nonsense through to its logical endpoint, his old man might finally be dispelled of his delusional ways, his younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln.
After an on-the-road accident lands Woody in the hospital, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the hapless pair in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody’s older bother still lives. It’s an occasion for a reunion and for the family to revisit its past, for David to put the pieces together in his quest to understand why his father is the unreasonable, beaten-down drunk he is. Among the movies most profound moments is when the Grants stop by Woody’s childhood home, now a ramshackle ruin; here, with its combination of visual desolation, Woody’s terse words that hint at abuse at the hands of his father, we glean a disturbing picture of a bleak childhood. Another enlightening scene unfolds during a visit David makes to the publishing office of Hawthorne’s tiny newspaper where he encounters one of his father’s early sweethearts who, almost passingly, lets slip an important and traumatic detail from Woody’s service in the Korean War. It’s another clue in Payne’s character-study-as-detective-story.
As word gets out about Woody’s alleged millionaire status, everyone wants a piece of it, from members of his extended family to Ed Pegrem (an excellent Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner who wants compensation for all the losses incurred from Woody’s irresponsibility and drunkenness. He’s the closest we get to a villain in Nebraska; he’s all smiles on the outside but Ed soon shows himself to be a cunning, manipulative bastard. And, at first, Squibb is difficult to take; her performance, with is droll, plainspoken sassiness, feels stilted and recalls the charmless shrew she played in About Schmidt. But you warm up to her once you realize that this isn’t a case of a bad performance. Squib’s is actually a very good one as she plays Kate the way she needs to be played: a saucy, tell-it-like-is matriarch to the rest of her family’s reticence and repression. Her performance dovetails squarely with Dern, Forte and Odenkirk’s more colorful, hem-and-haw histrionics. And it’s that directness in her character that ultimately puts everyone in their place.
Bruce Dern gives an admirable, tip-of-the-iceberg performance; the actor’s calculated reserve offers an intriguing glimpse of an entire world hidden below the depths. If we allow ourselves to search his face, his defeated manner of speech and movement, and for what’s unsaid in the long pauses between his bursts of candid pronouncements, we excavate a potential gold mine of decades-old pathos and heartbreak. By the end, we wonder whether Woody is a truly senile drunk or a defeated soul whose childlike trust in others resulted in so much disappointment that he’s since retreated into his own imaginary world (one in which he’s a sweepstakes prize-winner), desperate now to show himself a success to those who’ve either come to pity him or given up on him.
The entire film–and the long section in Hawthorne in particular–provides Payne the opportunity for his patented blend of ethnographic realism and acerbic satire as it comments on life’s underlying sadnesses and the tragic, inevitable shattering of our dreams. Papamichel’s flawless cinematography, by the way, is aided immeasurably by Mark Orton’s gorgeously evocative score, a tender, yet haunting accompaniment to a thoughtful and provocative film experience.
If you want the antithesis of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943), that paragon of Americana, look no further than the family dinner-table scene in Nebraska in which you’re riveted to the sociological details of what this group of fringe Middle Americans are consuming even more than the almost-throwaway banter that interrupts the long silences and gulps of Old Mil. This scene is Payne at this best, offering–like so much else in Nebraska–a rueful, post-recession picture of America that’s compulsively fascinating to behold.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray