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November 22, 2013

Almost all of Alexander Payne’s films concern aging and disappointment in some way. Sometimes it’s more of an undercurrent, as in The Descendants, but in Nebraska it’s right out in front. This time around, Payne tackles that certain middle-American, working-class sense of masculinity, and how the march of time drags it further and further from our grasp. It’s a tight story with a phenomenal cast, and it will enjoy a place among the best films by this acclaimed filmmaker.

It’s been a long time coming, too. Bob Nelson’s screenplay made its way to Payne’s desk while he was producing About Schmidt, and it’s easy to see why. With no more than some minor touch-ups, the script has Payne’s bittersweet, dry-absurdist style all over it. But with the road-movie Sideways already queued up, Payne delayed on Nebraska until now, and it’s well worth the wait.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is old. It’s never clear exactly how old, but Dern himself is 77; add unruly, fly-away white hair and haphazardly-shaven stubble and he looks as beaten and worn as his faded old flannel shirts. He’s a cantankerous old man with a cantankerous old wife in Kate (June Squibb), who’s finding him increasingly unmanageable. Things only get worse when he receives a magazine sweepstakes letter and, deciding he doesn’t trust the mail with his million dollars, starts trying to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up in person.

Of course he never makes it far; the police keep picking him up and returning him home, where Kate starts threatening to put him in a home. Their older son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is all for it, but David (Will Forte) thinks that maybe if he just drives his dad out to Lincoln to see that there’s no million dollars they can put this all behind them.

Life intervenes on the road, and David realizes they won’t make Lincoln by the weekend. They decide to stop off in Hawthorne, the small town where Woody and Kate grew up, and have Kate and Ross come out to join them for a little reunion. Over the weekend David meets all the extended family and family friends — including his father’s old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) — that he hasn’t had much contact with since before he was a man himself. The conversations quickly fall into the normal, middle-American rhythms of gossip between the women and talk about cars and machinery between the men, and David sees it all from the outside. But in meeting all these people he comes to a deeper understanding of his parents, of himself, and of why this prize is such a big deal to Woody.

Payne shoots in black-and-white — a first both for him and for his regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael — and he does a brilliant job of it. He quickly adapts to the use of texture in black-and-white pictures, and puts it to great use from the costumes the to wide-open landscapes. Both of these provide important parallels to the story, by the way: as Woody and David proceed, the country around them opens up from the confines of downtown Billings to the South Dakota badlands to the sky-to-sky horizon of the great plains. Meanwhile, David’s clothing changes gradually until it’s almost the same as his father’s: beaten and faded, weary and worn, but also more comfortable.

Dern and Forte are both garnering high praise for their performances, and it’s well-deserved. Forte does benefit a bit from the whole comedic-actor-goes-dramatic thing, but he does bring a wide-eyed vulnerability to his portrayal of an adult child of a difficult family. But some notice should also be paid to Squibb, who is consistently charming as the brash, no-nonsense Catholic girl who married into a whole mess of Lutherans.

But the greatest achievement in the film is Nelson’s story itself, which turns us slowly around as it plays out at its slow, small-town pace. We go in knowing that we’ve seen Woody Grant many times, in many films, but we come out realizing that we may not know him at all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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