Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Woody Grant (Dern) is an alcoholic, elderly and seemingly senile old man who after receiving a letter that is obviously a complete scam, firmly believes that he has won $1million. The only problem is that it requires travelling to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his ‘winnings’ and he lives in Billings, Montana and cannot drive. After several attempts to simply walk there, his son David (Forte) finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln to pick up these imaginary winnings and the two embark on a father-son road trip. On the way they stop and stay over in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne and meet the entirety of Woody’s extended family and friends from his past. However, when Woody lets slip about the money people’s attitudes to him suddenly change.
Whether it is wine drinking with Paul Giamatti or Jack Nicholson travelling to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding, Alexander Payne does love to make a bittersweet road movie. Well, Nebraska is yet another road movie and it is certainly also bittersweet. It is also in my view a superbly written, directed and acted deeply involving drama.
Shot digitally in widescreen and then converted to extremely effective monochrome, Nebraska is definitely melancholic at times, but certainly never bleak just for the sake of it. Once Woody and David are on the road the widescreen shots capture perfectly the desolation of the open and flat fields of the area and the fictional town of Hawthorne which like so many towns of that kind have suffered in the global recession, but were never particularly exciting places to live. This is perfectly captured by the town’s reaction to both seeing Woody again and then finding out about his ‘winnings’. Thankfully Nebraska never over does the nostalgia as Woody sees old friends and lovers, and visits places he grew up in, with plenty of humour to be found. It is often the little and quirky things in life that make us laugh, and the naturalistic dialogue of Nebraska generates plenty of laughs without ever having to try too hard, proving just how well it is made and acted.
Naturally a drama of this kind relies on great acting, and Nebraska is a film that predominantly belongs to Bruce Dern. With his thinning hair always a mess and his shuffling walk, Dern captures perfectly with every expression and delivery of dialogue the character of Woody, making the protagonist such an endearing character despite being rough around the edges. Sometimes seeming completely out of it with developing senility, but certain moments, expressions and lines of dialogue suggest he is still very much with it. We the audience are never truly sure if Woody is more aware of everything than he lets on and indeed deep down he knows that these winnings are fictional, this only serving to make his character more fascinating and intriguing.
Woody’s relationship with younger son David forms the emotional backbone of the story and Will Forte is note perfect too. As Woody’s long suffering wife, June Squibb steals many scenes with some great and often hilarious lines of dialogue. Her words to Woody in isolation sound hateful, but they are meant with genuine affection, and this is emphasised when she immediately stands up for her husband when anyone else tries to say something bad about him.
For a film where seemingly very little happens, the 115 minutes completely fly by as it is just a really enjoyable experience to spend time with these characters and I felt that I genuinely began to care about them. The ending too is a cathartic and appropriately judged experience bringing a very satisfying end to a thoroughly engaging drama.
With a magnificent central performance from Bruce Dern and its supporting cast, Alexander Payne’s latest road movie is yet another deeply engaging and superbly written meditation on the subtle and poignant comedy and tragedy of life.