There is something deceptively simple about Alexander Payne’s (The Decedents) latest feature film “Nebraska.” It stars Bruce Dern (Coming Home) as a rickety old-timer with a one-track mind — to get from his Montana home all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim a $1 million bogus sweepstakes prize. In its roughly two hour long narrative, there aren’t any CGI monsters or highflying ninjas. In fact, the movie isn’t even presented in color. Yet, Payne’s newest — based on a script by Bob Nelson (The Eyes of Nye) — is nonetheless a true American masterpiece because of all of the things it doesn’t show. There aren’t any beautiful movie stars, iconic settings, or happy endings. America, for the most part, isn’t like that. As such, “Nebraska” might not make as much noise as “Thor” or “Catching Fire” at the box office. Although, its voice will surely be heard come awards season.
In a Hollywood career that spans over 50 years, Bruce Dern has never won an Oscar. If the academy has any brains this year, the future looks bright for the 77-year old. This time around, Dern plays the elderly, booze-loving protagonist Woody Grant. When we first meet the man, he’s making his way to Lincoln in order to pick up his $1 million sweepstakes prize. But because he’s too old to drive, he’s forced to walk.
Trekking on foot from Montana all the way to Nebraska would be a miracle for even the most in-shape person, so it doesn’t take long for the police to wrangle Woody into custody and leave him in the care of his youngest son David (Will Forte). David, just like his father, doesn’t have much going for him. A surround sound audio salesman, the character has just about reached the pinnacle of success his hometown of Billings, Montana can offer.
Despite continued failure, Woody doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s stubborn. Soon, he’s escaping his house on an almost daily basis, much to the chagrin of his unpleasant wife Kate (June Squibb). Seeing the desire in his dad’s eyes, David takes it upon himself to drive his father to Nebraska to claim his “prize.” David knows that the award is just a come-on to buy magazine subscriptions, but he just wants to make his dad happy. This seemingly painless road trip takes an unexpected turn after father and son stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska — the town Woody where was raised and most of his family continues to live.
Woody, as a character, is incredibly somber. He’s lived through a lot — multiple wars, economic depressions, and cultural reform — and as such is very soft spoken. Thankfully, Dern doesn’t need dialogue to portray how his character feels. A perfectly timed flicker of a smile or a hunch of his back can convey just as much as fifteen lines of dialogue. Dern plays the part almost as if he were in a silent film. He strips his performance of all unnecessary attributes, and uses his body with the utmost sincerity. It’s brilliant to watch, especially coming from the same actor that was in last year’s over the top Tarantino film “Django Unchained.”
“Nebraska” also benefits immensely from its talented supporting cast. As Woody’s son David, Will Forte drops his Saturday Night Live schlock and easily adapts to this much more dramatic tale. That’s not to say that his character is completely melancholy. He certainly gets to unleash a few jokes, but the entire narrative is much more toned-down. The humor is often times derived from the subtext of a situation instead of what’s actually being spoken.
The one exception, however, is June Squibb. Putting even Betty White to shame, Squibb is absolutely hilarious as Woody’s loose-lipped, unfeeling wife Kate. The character has suffered through just as much as Woody, and at this point, doesn’t care what people think of her. Kate is one of those people that has an opinion of everyone and everything, and she doesn’t have a problem telling people exactly how she feels about them. With such a kind, matronly face, Squibb looks like the quintessential grandma. The moment she opens her mouth, though, she shows just how unconventional she really is.
Having been born in Omaha, director Alexander Payne returns home with “Nebraska.” Filled with plenty of exceptional performances — Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, and Bob Odenkirk (who hasn’t been mentioned yet) — Payne’s film often presents the funny side of the typical Middle American family. This warm-hearted story, however, comes with it a much darker reality. As David and Woody make their way through Wyoming, North Dakota, and Nebraska en route to Lincoln, they pass through plenty of blue-collar towns time has all but forgotten.
When the pair stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska to visit Woody’s family, this economic disparity is shown even better. After the news spreads that there might be a newly minted millionaire in their midst, the entire town erupts in celebration. No one in the community has ever seen that kind of money before.
One million dollars is certainly a lot of money — a fortune for most. Yet, if someone in New York or LA suddenly won a million overnight, it wouldn’t be cause for citywide celebration. But then again, Payne and Nelson aren’t concerned with that side of the country. They care about the large majority. The part of the USA that isn’t shown on TV or cinema screen. And it shows. In the end, “Nebraska” might just be the best thing to come out of Middle America since 1996’s “Fargo.” It’s that good of a movie.
By David Morris