By my count, Nebraska is director Alexander Payne’s fourth film in which a road trip plays a significant role in bringing about positive change in unhappy characters. After About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, it would seem that yet another journey of this sort might be one too many, but the latest odyssey proves to be his best film to date. Such positive results come from all corners of this wonderful work, beginning with the screenplay by Bob Nelson, from which springs salty old dog Woody Grant. Played with remarkable honesty by longtime character actor Bruce Dern (looking like Sideshow Bob’s polar bear) and shot in gorgeous black and white by Phedon Papamichael, this classic curmudgeon is a joy to behold and, though often challenging, worth the effort to understand why he is the way he is.
Picked up by the sheriff on the highway near his Billings, Montana home, Woody produces a paper proclaiming that he’s won a million dollars. Naturally, it’s a scam from a magazine subscription service in Lincoln, Nebraska (where he was headed), which everyone but Woody grasps. What makes this misunderstanding more than just a simple case of dementia is that it’s unclear whether something’s truly wrong with his memory or if he’s so unsatisfied with life that he would undertake extreme measures to attain what he may very well know is a non-existent fortune merely for the sake of getting away from home. The former is an easy solution, but on the latter’s side is an unloving marriage to Kate (June Squibb), who wants to put him in a nursing home, allusions to a history of apathy toward his children, and a history of both alcoholism and gullibility. Add it up and trudging across two states doesn’t sound so bad.
Meanwhile, Woody’s son David (Will Forte, in full on New Leaf Turning mode) is mired in a similar melancholy. A sad sack who sells home theater systems and lives in a dinky apartment recently vacated by his live-in girlfriend (Missy Doty), he’s likewise in bad shape when Woody makes two more escape attempts. Failing to convince him that the prize is a hoax, he nonetheless acquiesces when Woody asks him to drive the two of them to Lincoln, and as they load up his Subaru, there’s a sense that a trip out of town with his dad may be the best decision he’s made in years.
Passing bleak yet beautiful prairie landscapes, cued to Mark Orton‘s quietly epic acoustic compositions, the two Grant men don’t bond so much as bounce off one another. David asks big life questions that he’s never posited before and Woody offers blunt, hilarious responses, including simple revelations on why he got married (“She wanted to”) and had children (“I liked to screw and your mother’s Catholic, so you figure it out”). The trip also comes with its share of bumps as Woody’s hospitalization for a minor injury alters their travel plans and reroutes them to Woody and Kate’s hometown of Hawthorne, Neb. There the other Grants and other old acquaintances await, and like a grumpy oracle he’s right to be wary and upset about returning to his old stomping grounds.
The bulk of Nebraska occurs in this forgotten town, where vultures from David’s dimwitted layabout cousins Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray) to Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) come looking for reparations, convinced he’s truly hit it big. The greedy requests jostle David from his comfort zone but really bring out the best in Kate, who’s taken the bus over for the impromptu family reunion. At first, she appears to be simply another take on the dirty old woman stereotype, but when pushed by relatives and former friends, she becomes something more. The same may be said for the immediate family overall as, joined by David’s newscaster brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the four experience a togetherness not felt in ages and make some new awkward memories in the process.
Big moments of this nature, presented in Payne’s typical subtly powerful fashion, are what solidify Nebraska as a great film, though it’s the continuity of minimalism on all fronts connecting these peaks that deserve the most praise. From Woody’s sparse dialogue to everyday sights of motorcyclists and big rigs passing on the highway, the details are true to the harshness of the land and the hardscrabble ways of its people. Such a work can only be made in black and white, and the drama within is so successful that it’s difficult to picture any other players enacting it.
Rated R for some language.