Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Synopsis: 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.
Alexander Payne’s decision to film Nebraska in stark black-and-white inevitably invites comparisons with Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show which, like this movie, takes a look at the community of a dying rural town. The difference is that Nebraska focuses on Hawthorne’s older residents, while Bogdanovich’s movie focused on Anarene’s youth. Both pictures are tinged with melancholic regret which is complemented by that sparse black-and-white imagery, but The Last Picture Show captures the small town ennui in a much more subtle manner, as a ubiquitous presence hanging unseen over the residents of Anarene. In Nebraska, we see what happens to those who don’t break free, and it makes for dispiriting viewing which is only partly lightened by the fact that the film’s protagonists are just visitors passing through.
Those visitors are Woody Grant (Bruce Dern — Marnie, 1969), a shambling alcoholic who might perhaps be approaching the outer fringes of dementia, and his son, David (Will Forte), a home theatre salesman whose girlfriend has just left him. Woody is on his way to Nebraska to collect what he thinks will be $1 million winnings from one of those scams designed to sell magazine subscriptions to the gullible. David is driving him there, having realised that if he doesn’t the old man is just going to keep trying to walk the near-800 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. He figures that the best way to bring this situation to a close is to let his old man find out for himself that there’s no fortune awaiting him.
The route to Lincoln takes them close to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, and after Woody receives a bang to the head after falling over while drunk they decide to stop over and visit Woody’s brother. David cautions his father about mentioning the $1 million to anyone, but Woody tells Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach — American History X), an old friend who borrowed a compressor from Woody back in ’74 and never returned it, in a bar and the following morning the entire town believes that Woody is a millionaire in the making.
Once again, as he has previously in Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne takes us on both a road journey and an internal journey as David slowly gains an appreciation of the father he had previously considered difficult and remote. The town in which Woody once lived throws up unexpected nuggets of information, pieces of a puzzle which David hadn’t even been aware was largely incomplete. An old flame who still regrets losing out on Woody to David’s mother, Kate (a hilarious performance from June Squibb — About Schmidt, Would You Rather) reveals that Woody returned from Korea a changed man, and the behaviour of others towards Woody once they learn of his ‘win’ shows that he was a man whose inability to say no resulted in many people taking advantage of his good nature. Chief amongst those unscrupulous opportunists is Pegram, who is played with admirable finesse by Keach. Pegram is a man who couches threats in homely phrases and who can smile sweetly with steel in his eyes. He’s a psychological bully whose come-uppance, while distasteful to some, is wholly deserved.
Although Nebraska is something of a bittersweet story, peppered with humorous moments and built around a great performance from screen veteran Bruce Dern, who manages to insert a delicious touch of ambiguity in Woody’s near-vacuous gaze so that we’re never really certain just how close he is to losing the plot. The story follows a familiar arc, but it lacks the feel-good touch one might expect from such a tale. Woody’s ultimate victory is a fleeting and wooden one that gives only the illusion of things having changed for the better. His son might have a better understanding of him, but the life he has led remains small and largely unfulfilled, and although we see David’s initial passivity overcome by his experiences on the road, there’s no real sense that he has learned lessons that can be put to use in changing his own imperfect life. Perhaps that was Payne’s idea, or perhaps I missed the point, but Nebraska ultimately failed to satisfy.