Remember that one time when your father wanted to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the million dollars he won from a magazine subscription company? On the one hand, you desperately want to make up for lost father-son bonding time, because in your childhood your father was too busy being a dedicated alcoholic. On the other hand, you certainly don’t appreciate your mother calling your senile father “a dumb cluck” every five seconds. So what do you do? You go on a road trip, of course. This is America.
Director Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt,” “Citizen Ruth,” “The Descendants”) and first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson marry their polished sensibilities with the keen understanding that there are vast regions of America that exist between the Big Cities and the Wild West and that life unfolds there. “Nebraska,” Payne’s sixth and latest feature, is a road trip into the heartland of authentic Americana. “Nebraska” isn’t simply a comedy, a drama, or a satire; rather, like the genuine lives it depicts, it is a little bit of each. It gives something to take home, to chew on and mull over and toss around in your brain as you try to rationalize why it made such an imprint on your heart.
Woody (Bruce Dern) is a lifelong alcoholic and a Korean War veteran who is in the early stages of dementia. Having received a magazine subscription ad in the mail with his name on it, Woody believes himself to be the winner of a $1 million sweepstake and insists on walking from his home in Billings, MT to Lincoln, NB to collect his prize winnings. Woody finds a companion in David (Will Forte), his youngest son, who drudges on every day selling electronics in Billings after a recent breakup with his girlfriend. David indulges his old man in his fantasy and reminds us all of the enduring patience and love that a son can have for his father. Along the way, Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb), whose graveyard soliloquy rant bests that of SNL on any night, and Woody’s “hot shot” TV anchor son tag along for an awkward family reunion in Hawthorne, NB, where Kate and Woody first met and married.
Shot in pristine widescreen black-and-white by talented cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, “Nebraska” raises the bar with images of elegant, but seemingly ordinary, beauty. Long shots of empty Hawthorne accentuate the width of the roads and the vast span of the fields, a stark contrast to the minuteness of the character’s lives. And, in a sense, the insignificance of all human lives. The desolate streets outside the empty small-town taverns are pampered with delicate care, each strand of light from street lamps adjusted to perfection, and every plain-spoken line a work of poetry. Payne really took his time with this one, and it paid off.
Dern, who won the best actor award at the Cannes Films Festival this year for his portrayal of the stubbornly innocuous Woody, gives his finest performance yet on the silver screen. Over beer one night at the local tavern, David decides to confront his father about his drinking problem: “You are always drunk, Dad, always have been,” says Forte, hoping to spur a bit of reflection from his father. After a short pause, Dern replies, “If you were married to your mother, you would be too.”
“Nebraska” takes a rather dreary view of aging, but suggests that some mixture of self-delusion and caring for children can at least make the last years tolerable. For Woody, it’s not about the money, or the things it can buy; it’s about acknowledgment and a yearning to be wanted, to be admired, and to be someone special. That desire, subtly sustained by Dern throughout the movie, is something we can all relate to.