Whenever I’m out driving and see someone walking along a highway I think to myself that they must have an interesting story. The first image in Alexander Payne’s latest fine film, Nebraska, is the perpetually stooped figure of Woody Grant, slowly making his way down the road. He does have an interesting story.
Woody is headed toward Lincoln, Nebraska. The problem is he’s in Billings, Montana. He has received a letter in the mail from one of those publishing clearing house firms that has promised him a million dollars. Most of us read the fine print and see that it’s conditional on having the winning number. But Woody, confused in his old age, can’t or won’t see it.
His wife, Kathy, thinks he’s a “dumb cluck.” One son, a TV reporter, tries to make him see reason. But his younger son, David, eventually takes pity on him and decides to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way they stop in Woody’s home town and visit relatives and old friends. Some things are learned along the way.
Payne, who has set many of his films in his native state of Nebraska, walks a tightrope here. He displays the habits and behavior of the taciturn people of the Great Plains with what some would call affection and others might call mockery. I lean toward affection, as I recognized a lot of this behavior in my people, and I expect almost everyone would, no matter where they were raised. A tableau of Woody and his brothers watching TV is like the 21st century version of American Gothic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Woody Grant is a sideways version of the painter of that work, Grant Wood.
Shot in breathtaking black and white by Phedon Papamichael that suggests Walker Evans photographs, the austerity of the plains is brought into sharp focus. We get the lonely highways, the boarded up storefronts, the signs missing letters, the silos in the twilight. The photography also shows every bit of wear and tear these people have endured on their faces. Woody, with that hunch and a nimbus of uncombed snow white hair, looks every bit of what must be almost eight decades on the planet.
There is so much to like here. The script by Bob Nelson may be a little contrived–the central conceit of a man duped by a marketing scheme may have some truth in it, but it barely holds up. The son, played solidly by Will Forte, isn’t fully developed. We see him as a stereo salesman, and breaking up with a girlfriend, but we don’t know much about him, and I’m always baffled by films where a grown child knows nothing about his parents, but that’s just me. The ending also gives in a bit to sentimentality.
But Nelson also has a fine ear for the dialogue of such people. When asked how by his son why he had kids, Woody replies, “I liked screwing, and your mother is a Catholic.” He also responds to the question of whether he ever had regrets about marrying Kathy by quickly saying, “All of the time.”
As a director, Payne adds some wonderful touches, such as having Stacy Keach, as Woody’s old partner, sing karaoke (Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto”), and magnificently uses the talents of June Squibb, an actress getting the part of her lifetime as Kathy. She is most memorable in a scene in the home town cemetery, commenting with brutal honest about the interred, such as Woody’s sister Rose, who died when she was 19. “Whore,” she says. She also lets out a rousing “Go fuck yourself” to the family members who want a piece of Woody’s mythical prize winnings.
What this film will most be remembered for is Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody. An actor who has specialized in playing oddballs for fifty years, Woody is his crowning achievement. He is a man who has said little his whole life, and is now slowly losing his faculties. He can’t drive, but he wants a new truck. He’s an alcoholic, but he’s also generous to a fault. When Keach, who turns bilious, reminds him of an affair he had, in front of Forte, the shame he feels his palpable, even though his face doesn’t register much. Another scene has him visiting the farmhouse where he grew up. He looks in on the room where his brother died of scarlet fever, and his parents’ room, where he was taken to be whipped. “I guess nobody’s going to whip me now,” he says.
Nebraska is also laugh out loud funny, and very touching in that familiar way that relationships between fathers and sons are portrayed. I laughed and got a little lump in my throat at a shot late in the film while Dern is wearing a hat that says “Prize Winner.” Dern, if there’s any justice, will be in the running for lots of prizes this award season. He’s already won at Cannes.
My grade for Nebraska: A-.