Wait, is your real name Saul, and is she
driving us to New Hampshire?
Grade: B +
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Returning to his Midwestern stomping grounds, director Alexander Payne drains the palette but not the poetry from Nebraska, a film’s whose state of mind is more emotional than geographic. Traversing the byways from Billings, Mont. to Lincoln, Neb., the simple road trip comprises complex themes: fathers and sons, regret, detachment from family and one’s past and the decay small town middle America. Like a fine wine, it seeps into your system, its effects lingering far past its content.
Septuagenarian Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he’s won $1 million and can’t stop talking about it. In fact, he takes the directive of a magazine sweepstakes flyer quite literally, determined to trek from Billings to Lincoln in order to collect his winnings. To mollify his old man, who suffers from early dementia and old alcoholism, son David (Will Forte) agrees to take time from off from his big box electronics sales job and wayward everyday to drive Woody south and deflate his foolhardy fantasy once of for all.
A head gash caused during one of Woody’s boozy escapades leads father and son to a layover in Hawthorne, Neb., the hometown of Woody and his wife Kate (June Squibb), a harridan whose foul mouth and churlish disposition mask a caring heart and buried hurt.
The majority of Nebraska is situated in Hawthorne, a dying dustbowl whose residents cling to their ways. Taciturn menfolk sit stoically gazing at the boob tube all day; womenfolk gossip over coffee in the kitchen. But, when word of Woody’s baseless rants about hitting it rich gets out, all the townsfolk—particularly Woody’s extended family—buy in despite the protestations of David, Kate and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), David’s older brother. Their blind belief is triggered by a melange of reasons, from envy-cum-greed to the hope that one of their own would find success in a place where success has been in short supply.
Payne’s characterizations tread perilously close to condescension, but he ultimately avoids it thanks to a rendering that satirical without being sanctimonious. Indeed, while the film eagerly incorporates Payne’s trademark dark humor, its execution and staging are more deadpan and slightly farcical, like a more humanist Coen brothers film. Great credit also goes to Dern, who won Best Actor at Cannes for a performance that lends subtle shadings to a role that could have easily devolved into a codger cliché. On the other hand, Forte is merely serviceable, taking his diffident directive too literally and adding little emotional edge to a role that sorely sang out for it.
Filmed in black and white, the autumnal plains and wide open spaces are their own characters, feeding a milieu of desolation and loss in the heart of flyover country. Nebraska is an elegy—there’s real heartache as Woody ambles around his old haunts and homestead, while David’s interstate lark evolves into an exploration of his parents’ true selves.
There’s no grand revelation or life-altering catharsis in Nebraska. Only the sort of emotional feast that often follows the harvest.