Alexander Payne has made a career of taking an insightful, and humorous, approach to examining characters out of touch with the world around them. He continues this trend on a far more intimate scale with his latest film Nebraska. Focusing on both the themes of aging and memory, through the eyes of small Midwestern American life, Payne crafts a film that often plays like a farce without ever losing its hearts.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an alcoholic in that latter stage of his life, is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska even if he has to walk there. Believing he has won a million dollars from a Publisher Clearing House-style letter, which is really designed to sell a few magazine subscriptions, Woody is eager to collect his winnings and buy a new truck. Considered to be going senile, Woody’s aimless wandering along the side of the road begins to become a nuisance for his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb) and their two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Seeing as his father will not stop until he has his alleged millions, David decides to drive his father to Lincoln in hopes of quelling his delusions once and for all.
Over the course of their journey the men make several stops across the Midwestern landscape including Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up. While in Hawthorne, word quickly spreads of Woody’s new found fortune causing both family and former friends, like Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), to come out of the woodwork. Trying to keep Woody’s misconceptions about the money from becoming front page headlines, David struggles to connect with a father who was seemingly drunk for most of his childhood. In many ways the men could not be more different. Woody is a man of few words who is set in his ways, whereas David is a man whose constant indecision caused him to recently lose his girlfriend of two years. However, in order for David to truly come to terms with his father, he must first understand where his father came from.
Nebraska is more than just a tale of a father and son learning to comprehend one another. It is a comedic and meditative look at the role memory plays when facing our mortality. Woody may be viewed as a drunken senile old fool on the surface, but it is clear that Hawthrone has had a huge impact on him. It is a place full of memories of a time gone by, an era where he could walk into the bar and know everyone’s name. Now he is surrounded by the graves of deceased friends and a dilapidated family home that still holds the chilling sting of sibling tragedies witnessed firsthand. As if instantly reverting back to a child, Woody even remarks about being in trouble if his parents had caught him standing in their room like he is now. It is somber moments like these which allow Payne to really explore how much of who we are as adults is based on where we were raised.
Being a native of the state himself, Payne ensures that Nebraska plays an important supporting role in the film; both from a visual and cultural standpoint. The long shots of the landscape create a feel of a region that seemingly never changes. A place where family gatherings almost always consists of the women in the kitchen sharing gossip and the men watching football; barely acknowledging each other outside of a few words regarding beer and cars. Although stagnant on the surface, the fact of the matter is that life is indeed moving forward. Nebraska not only represents memories of joy, pain, and regret, but also a firm reminder that death will soon be coming around the corner for Woody.
For his part, Bruce Dern gives a brilliant performance as Woody. He is endearing with just the right amount of fire needed to make Woody a complex character. Whether it is his grizzly stubbornness or pitiful drunkenness, Woody is that family member that we have all encountered at some point. Though Dern’s performance is what makes Nebraska tick; it should be noted that Will Forte is a revelation. Known more for his comedic works, Forte does a great job playing the everyman trying to navigate through the unique cast of characters. While Dern and Forte have great chemistry in the film, June Squibb has some of the funniest scene stealing moments you will see this year. Squibb perfectly embodies the nagging and protective wife and mother that will be familiar to many in the audience. If June Squibb is not a name you are familiar with now, you will be by the end of the film.
Nebraska continues Payne’s quest to create character driven works that are comedic while still resonating on a deeper level. Though a much smaller film in scope than his previous films, the performances and the way he captures life in Midwestern America makes Nebraska a charming film that should not be missed.