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Nebraska (Payne, 2013)

Nebraska isn’t a film that should have worked. Road trip movies featuring a pair of mismatched people have become of one the biggest cliches in cinema, a tired concept that’s been covered for generations. When you consider the fact that the lead character of the film is in his ‘80s and seemingly on the brink of death, director Alexander Payne had an uphill battle going into this film. And yet, what he has created is one of the most unique pieces of artistic cinema of the year. Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an 80-year-old ordinary man from Billings, Montana who receives a letter stating that he has won $1 million. He doesn’t trust the U.S. postal service and he can’t drive anymore, so he sets off on a walk to Nebraska to claim his grand prize. Everyone around him thinks he’s gone senile in his old age, knowing that the letter is just a scam to get gullible people to subscribe to magazines they don’t need. His wife Kate (June Squibb) has grown tired of his antics and his son David (Will Forte) is a mild-mannered electronics salesman who’s grown distant from his family. Both realize that the letter is an obvious scam, but only David wishes to let Woody indulge in his “fantasy.”

David decides to take the opportunity to bond with his father on a cross-country road trip, driving him through his father’s hometown and visiting old relatives. The sparse landscapes of Midwest America are on full display as Payne presents them as they are rather than through either a sentimental or condescending lens. This tone carries through to the characters, from Woody, David and Kate to some of the colorful characters than inhabit Woody’s hometown. Though it’s easy to laugh at some of the simple-minded townsfolk who get swept up in the excitement that “old Woody Grant is a millionaire!” Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson don’t treat them with anything but respect. Several family members and former friends come out of the woodwork to try and get a piece of Woody’s prospective million dollars, but very few are depicted as outright villains. 


Though the film has a rather episodic structure in its plot, it is largely driven by its characters and the choices they make. Woody expects David to have a beer with his old man, despite David giving up drinking years ago. David decides to indulge anyway if it means bonding with his father for what might be one of the last times. David and Kate assure everyone around them that Woody hasn’t actually won anything, and Woody is aware of their discouraging comments, but he does not change his mind. If anything, his comments make him want to trek onward to Nebraska to prove them all wrong. 

Will Forte & Bruce Dern in Nebraska

The performances of Dern, Forte and Squibb allow their characters to come to life. Dern gives one of the most heartbreaking performances of the year as a simple man who wants something to hope for in his old age. Though we’re probably all like David or Kate in knowing that the whole scheme is probably a fraud, we also secretly hope that Woody has been right in his convictions all along. He is an honest man who can’t say no to other people very well, so we don’t want him to be screwed over, even if it would teach him a valuable lesson in the end. These are just ordinary people who don’t really have anything special going for them, yet we ultimately care about their well being. Forte gives a delicately nuanced performance, trading in his broadly comedic Saturday Night Live roots for more dramatic subtlety. Squibb is a scene-stealer as Kate, a woman who can’t help herself from delighting in the drama around her. None of them are particularly good or bad people, they simply are.

Nebraska is a poetic film in many ways — a quiet meditation on relationships and the generation gap. Payne made the conscious choice to shoot the entire film in black-and-white, giving it an aged feeling. It also gives the film a classic feeling, making its story feel like a simple parable about life in the Midwest. On the surface that’s all it really is, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a film that’s both entirely specific to the Midwest yet surprisingly resonant in its universal themes. Woody’s odyssey might not be as extraordinary and widespread as most film protagonists’ journeys, but to him it means the whole world.

Grade: A-
MVP: Bruce Dern

Awards Potential:

Best Picture
Best Director: Alexander Payne
Best Actor: Bruce Dern
Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte
Best Supporting Actress: June Squibb
Best Original Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score

Photo: Paramount Vantage


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