Published on January 8th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A natural and sobering road trip picture about fathers and sons. Bruce Dern may have been born to play this part--most of the time you forget he's in character.
R | 110 min.
Director: Alexander Payne | Screenplay: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Studio: FilmNation Entertainment | Distribution: Paramount Vantage
Few directors keep it as real as Alexander Payne — partly because his films exist in a very real and underwhelming world — but mostly because of the subtle performances he gets from his actors. After his previous two projects took place in sunny California and Hawaii, respectively, Payne returned to his native state for this sobering picture.
Aside from its setting, Nebraska shares many thematic similarities with the director’s other movies. Like 2011’s The Descendants, this is a story about bridging the oft-present gap between fathers and children. Like 2004’s Sideways and 2002’s About Schmidt, it’s a road trip movie that uses the solitude of the road as a catalyst for communication and honesty between its characters. And like 1999’s Election, my favorite Payne film, this is a story about trying to jumpstart your life after years of settling for mediocrity — mostly with painful results.
We start in lovely Billings, Montana, where an elderly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is picked up by police after attempting to walk the roughly 850 miles from his home to Nebraska, where he will cash in the $1 million winning sweepstakes ticket he got in the mail. His wife Kate (June Squibb) thinks he needs to be put into a home but his youngest son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive Woody to claim his prize–though he’s certain his old man has fallen for a scam. Along the way, David learns more about his stoic father than he ever knew, especially after they stop by his old home town for a few days along the trip.
This is a great slice of life about fathers and sons that manages to avoid being cheesy. David has an unflattering image of his dad in his mind before they hit the road–but realizes over time that may largely be his mother’s fault. After seeing Woody on his own and in a place where he was well-liked and respected, David’s perception of him begins to shift. What pervades throughout Nebraska, and makes its lead such an endearing character, is Woody’s fool-hearted optimism. To him, the prize money is not a possibility but a certainty, and he looks at it as a way of fulfilling an unspoken promise that he would give something worthwhile to his children.
Nebraska provides one of the most authentic performances you’ll see onscreen, as Dern, a career character actor, becomes Woody. This will almost surely bring him another Oscar nomination — and possibly his first win. This is one of those powerful late-career performances that we all love to see because acting in Hollywood is so often a young person’s game.
Dern has been in motion pictures for over 50 years and the practice shows as he makes this one look easy. And for a guy that’s typically known for playing total freaks, there is such a subtlety to his take on Woody that it simply doesn’t feel like you’re watching a character, but rather a real man. There’s no question that this is Dern’s movie, he owns it from start to finish — being featured in nearly every scene.
On the other hand, the casting of former Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte as the second lead seems like a mistake. Forte is a hilarious actor that’s mostly been in crappy movies — but we saw his genius in eight seasons on SNL as well as in a few short but extremely disturbing appearances on Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job! I didn’t feel like Forte and Dern clicked onscreen and in moments where the comedian was trying to levy his character’s downtrodden attitude, I kept waiting for a punchline or a silly look to the camera. Honestly, Forte wasn’t bad in the film but he didn’t benefit from being next to Dern in almost every scene of the movie, it just made him look stilted by comparison.
Anyone that has spent a lot of time in Midwest will see how authentic the supporting characters that line Nebraska‘s background are. Hell, when the Grants make it to Woody & Kate’s old stomping grounds, you might see a few of your own better-left-forgotten family members in the characters sitting around the dinner table…I know I did. Most of the people in this picture are not pleasant and when the word about Woody’s winnings gets out, the “vultures” begin to circle, another callback to the central storyline of The Descendants. This makes it even more refreshing when we come across an honest person along the road trip.
The use of black & white cinematography is a new technique for Payne, who typically opts for a colorful palette, and here the grays look gorgeous. Watching a black & white film like Nebraska after seeing so many color pictures somehow feels refreshing and allows you to think less about the aesthetics and more about the characters. Would Nebraska have been a worse film in color? Probably not, but the choice suits the simplicity of the movie’s mechanics perfectly.
This is a small film full of natural performances, also a plot featuring all the bitter disappointments and surprising gifts that life can bring. It’s fresh that nobody spends their time on a smartphone in the world of Nebraska, instead it’s having four or five beers with dad at the local bar that passes for entertainment — and when it’s with Woody Grant, you’re well taken care of.