Alexander Payne’s storied career is one paved with and defined by human characters. From the local Hawaiians depicted in The Descendants to the politically charged students of Election, the astute filmmaker has a knack for painting human beings with verisimilitude.
Running time: 115 min.
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Such is the case yet again in his latest film Nebraska, a black and white journey through some of the most barren lands of Middle America.
It begins with Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) an utterly discontent and partly senile husband and father who receives a promotion in the mail claiming he has won one million dollars.
Disregarding both his wife’s (Kate played by an eccentric June Squibb) reservations and the asterisk next the aforementioned promotion, Woody’s determined to pick up his winnings in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Without a car and license of his own, David (Will Forte) volunteers to take his father from their home in Billings, Montana to the promised land.
His son knows it’s a sham and that traveling cross-country is likely to be an exercise in futility. But in the hope that he could finally (truly) bond with his father, David traverses through Wyoming to South Dakota, eventually making a stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s hometown.
After long, winding shots of the never-ending Midwestern countryside, the film begins to pick up momentum in Hawthorne, where the citizens of the small town have caught wind that Woody has recently come into some big money.
Responses to Woody’s unexpected (and totally fictitious) fortune range from excitement to envy (many characters try to get it on the money by inventing debts that Woody owes them).
Until the car is fixed, David and Woody stay at a relative’s home. Aunts, uncles, and cousins populate the household. Idle chatter is had, mostly consisting of travel, cars, and how long it took to the travel from Billings to Hawthorne in said car.
When they’re not talking about engine sizes or travel times, the Grant family plants themselves in front of the television, motionless and silent, sporadically punctuated by one of many old geezers waxing nostalgic about an old car they once owned.
Unlike most directors in his position, Payne wishes not to judge these ostensibly archaic and simple-minded characters. A native of Nebraska, Payne allows each performer to play their parts as naturally and authentically as possible.
Both the film and the characters in it fully realize the state Hawthorne is in. As the American economy collapsed and gradually began to recover, Hawthorne was left behind. Most of the stores have been shut down, streets empty, locals depressed. It takes the news of Woody procuring a million dollars to get these people out of their stupor.
Of course, underneath the socio-economical hardships is the pain the lives between Woody and his two sons, David and Ross (who later enters the film, played by Bob Odenkirk).
When not in front of the television, Woody and David waddle around Hawthorne, visiting old time acquaintances and locations, drinking until reaching inebriation.
Below the austere surface of Woody is a man who has a lot of regrets. He regrets not raising his children better, for not being a better husband, for not providing as much as he should. In his mind, the million dollars would rectify the past, undue the damage he has done.
The conversations between Woody and David are where Nebraska thrives. Dern plays the beaten-down Korean war-veteran turned alcoholic with sincerity, while Forte – stepping away from SNL comedy and into drama – assumes the role of a son just trying to understand his old man.
The discourse is mostly one-sided, David prying and inquiring about the past, love, and marriage, while Woody provides answers ranging from bafflingly incoherent to startlingly poignant. There’s a clear generational gap between the two, each with their own ideas and ideals as to how life should and ultimately does play out.
To alleviate the tension mounting between David and Woody, Kate comes down from Billings to visit Hawthorne for the weekend.
Squibb absolutely steals every scene she’s in. Contrary to every other character in the film, Kate is filled with wit and vitality, making crude and rude observations about everyone, living and dead, from Hawthorne.
In one scene, Kate flashes the tombstone of a now deceased suitor of hers from time immemorial. This is one of many examples of Kate having no issue with being flippant during a traditionally melancholy act (i.e. visiting a cemetery filled with people you once knew).
In the movies we’ve come to expect that just about every troubled father and son tale will find – by the end – a happy resolution. But problems don’t subside so easily, and the past can only be addressed, not erased.
Payne opts for the path less traveled by with Nebraska – a path replete with sadness and love, relationships and hardships, all to the tune of Mark Orton’s quaint score.
By the time David and Woody do finally make it to Lincoln, its understood that they may not have solved all their problems (or any of their problems for that matter).
But at the very least the father and his son have found some mutual understanding and recognition that they’re each both equally imperfect and vulnerable, terrified – like all of us – of wasting the most precious gift we too often take for granted: life.