Nebraska (2013 Paramount Vantage)
An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Bob Nelson. Produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa.
Getting old sucks. This universal truth is hitting Woody Grant squarely in the face, but it’s his family who pays for it. Woody, played brilliantly by Bruce Dern, is a stoic, aging man on a mission to claim a $1 million prize in Lincoln, Nebraska…only it’s not real. It’s a scam. His wife knows it. His adult sons know it. His obsession leads him to wander off from his Billings, Montana home en route to Nebraska.
But this is not really a story about Woody’s decline. It’s about Woody’s youngest son, David, trying to forge a relationship with his father while he still has time. Unlike his mother and his older brother Ross, David has more outward patience for Woody’s wandering obsession with his prize. As David, Saturday Night Live veteran Will Forte turns in a story performance as an ordinary, down-on-his-luck fellow who’s trying to reclaim himself in his own way while trying to protect his father from himself.
The relationship between Woody and David is the centerpiece of Nebraska as they embark on a journey to claim Woody’s prize. For David, it’s an opportunity to bridge the growing distance between he and his withdrawn father and to learn about his life. It’s heartfelt and touching because it feels like a real father-and-son relationship. Neither men emote, which is something nearly any grown man can relate to, when pondering his relationship with their father.
For Dern’s part, his portrayal of Woody is simply stellar. Woody is a man of few words, but Dern brings out the character’s heart and soul in every scene in such a manner that you can’t help but feel sadness and empathy for him. Nowhere is this more evident than during Woody’s visit to his childhood home. It’s broken down, falling apart and occupied not much more than dust and broken remnants of furniture. It’s not hard to see the metaphor Payne was going for with this scene as it evokes a sense of sadness and mortality.
Performances drive Nebraska. Credit director Alexander Payne and his casting director John Jackson for assembling a group of actors that feel authentic for the material and the setting. There is no glamour in the plain states Midwest or the small-town, farming lifestyle of Montana and Nebraska. Even the extras and bit players look like normal townspeople who were enlisted for the production. Stacy Keach turns in a fine performance as the aggravating and obnoxious Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody’s looking to cash in on his fortunes. A muted Bob Odenkirk plays Ross, David’s slightly more successful older brother. While not a comedic role, Odenkirk still draws out laughs quietly and subtly. But it’s June Squibb as the cantankerous and no-bullshit matriarch of the Grant family who gives the performance of a lifetime. In a film that is more quiet than loud and draws its inspiration from the small, mundane moments in small-town living, Squibb’s Kate Grant is a welcome breath of fresh, ornery air in Nebraska.
Initially, Alexander Payne’s decision to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white seemed more like a gimmick befitting pretentious film school nerds who use it as a cheap, parlor trick to achieve “abstract” emotions. But as the film went on, it made sense. The contrasts and grays elevate the story and its performances. The scars and wrinkles appear deeper. The hollowness of life’s down moments feel more hollow. And the tender, gentle moments feel softer and more meaningful.
Nebraska is a wonderful, simple story about trying to squeeze just a little bit more out of a life that’s had its ups, downs, regrets and failures. But that’s what makes life worth living sometimes, isn’t it? Trying just one more time to get something right. But yeah, getting old still sucks.
RATING: **** stars (out of five)