Around half an hour into Nebraska, the seventh film from director Alexander Payne, a father and son stand at the side of the road and stare at Mount Rushmore. The duo are on a road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, but at the son’s behest, they take a small detour to gaze at the massive rock sculpture. That mountain is best remembered as the location for a big, action-packed climax in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; meanwhile, in Payne’s intimate, more sentimental comedy-drama, Mount Rushmore is small and distant. The father looks at it disapprovingly. “It’s just a bunch of rocks,” he quips, aching to get back into the car and drive away.
By this point of Payne’s film, moviegoers might be tempted to say the same thing about Bruce Dern, the prolific character actor who plays the father. He is just a grizzled old bunch of rocks, a fading relic from an older era of Hollywood, one could say. Those cautious about staying in their seats should keep giving the film a chance, as Nebraska soon opens up into a nearly note-perfect movie, a heartfelt and humorous ode to the heartland.
In Nebraska, Dern plays Woody Grant, a confused, alcoholic father of two sons. In his seventies, Woody believes he wins a $1,000,000 sweepstakes in the mail, although it is actually a scam. His son David (Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte) feels that he should give his pop one last hurrah before he becomes incoherent and moves into a retirement home. David takes his dad in a rusted Subaru into the Cornhusker State to retrieve his imaginary winnings. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is exhausted dealing with her husband’s fading memory and bouts of drinking, and warns her son that this trip may be a bad idea.
In Lincoln, David and Woody visit family and old friends. After Woody spreads word about his winnings, the small elderly community rallies around their old pal. One of these friends is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who used to run a repair shop with Woody. Since Ed gave Woody a bit of money to help deal with his move to Montana, Ed tells David that he expects to be compensated with $10,000 of the winnings. Similarly, members of the Grant’s extended family also try to corner the father and son into supplying them with a bit of dough.
Many of Payne’s films center around sad sacks journeying through a life crisis without much of a purpose. The sorry soul in Nebraska, Bruce Dern’s Woody, keeps him mouth agape, often looking like he is on the cusp of saying something. The first time we see Woody, he is wandering, hopelessly, at the side of the road, determined to get to Nebraska. He still has determination, even if his mental capacity leaves one doubtful if he can reach his destination alone.
As Woody, Bruce Dern is shattering, never forcing a laugh or straining to bring pathos to a more poignant moment. His rough face remains stony throughout, rarely cracking, yet he still exudes a warm kinship with Forte’s David. His character drinks with a glinted smile and he takes the attention that the townspeople give to his million-dollar reputation with stride, absorbing it all. He wants salvation and attention. Like the line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” Woody is from a town full of losers and pulling out of it to win.
Even for a slouched, slow moving, middle-class loser – like many of the protagonists who populate Payne’s other dark comedies – he walks with pride and purpose. In a telling scene when he visits his old home and recounts to his family the miseries of the old country, you can see Dern start to open up, a mournful tear in his eye. Behind this bedraggled mask is a tender heart, and the restraint and thoughtfulness brought to the performance slowly lets the audience into Woody’s head space.
The film is not entirely Dern’s though. Will Forte, an unexpected choice for the soft-spoken David, is stellar as well. In a straight man performance encountering a small-town world and circular, rural conversation, he is sheepish and deadpan. However, he still has the dramatic range to compete with an actor on Dern’s level.
Also terrific is June Squibb, best known as Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt. Squibb is poised for an Oscar nomination as Woody’s unfiltered wife. Here, Squibb’s Kate is a piping voice of disgust against the stubborn, unsophisticated townspeople. Her railings about old family members at their gravesites are bruisingly funny but also dignified.
Nebraska is shot in stark black-and-white (by the excellent Phedon Papamichael) and opens with Paramount’s logo that ran before films in the 1950s and 60s. Payne wants to capture the rustic feeling of small-town America – the empty strip of Lincoln that the characters drive through has no traffic, dilapidated buildings and only discernable features that reveal the town’s kitschy Americana. One would not be surprised walking into a movie house on that street and finding a film opening with the same Paramount logo that Payne uses.
Furthermore, composer Mark Orton sets up the story with melancholic strings and an acoustic guitar that give Nebraska a subdued, old west feel. Nebraska still feels and looks the same as it did when Woody grew up there; revisiting his old home and family makes him realize how much he yearns to retreat from everything the country stands for. He wants to be a town celebrity, he wants to have purpose, he wants to be a millionaire. Payne makes the Cornhusker State a prominent character that helps to emulate the themes of the film: a place that is flat, winding and poor thus becomes an apt metaphor for a failed American dream.
Nebraska’s screenplay comes from 56-year-old Bob Nelson. It’s his first, and he hits a jackpot. Nelson uses the smaller moments in the town with some of Woody’s old friends to teach David (and the audience) some tender truths. There is a reason that so many of the residents have fond memories of Woody. Nelson’s script parses through these reveals slowly, letting the character’s past present itself in due time and furthering the audience’s sympathy for the sorry protagonist. Even with another scribe, Nebraska is pure Payne, filled with sardonic humour and surprising empathy in characters that look small-town but feel very familiar.