Opening a window into the soul of the American family, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is dressed up with the trappings of a fictional feature, but that’s only an excuse to observe a father and a son nearing the end of their relationship.
Grizzled and grumpy and cantankerous — and from outward appearance, deep in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease — Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a Publisher’s Clearing Sweepstakes. All he needs to do is get from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.
It is purely a plot device, a MacGuffin that Alfred Hitchcock would appreciate.
The set-up, as ridiculous as it sounds, tells us quite a bit about Woody, not only his stubborn nature, but also his refusal to read the fine print. He only trusts himself, and in his cursory reading, he’s won a prize and he has to collect. So he ignores his wife Kate (June Squibb), with whom he has an impatient, bickering relationship, and dismisses the kind, patient attempts by his son David (Will Forte) to explain that he really hasn’t won anything.
David, who has suffered a recent romantic break-up and is none too satisfied with his dead-end employment as a stereo salesman, finally decides to accede to his father’s wishes and take him to Nebraska. David justifies the trip in his own head as an excuse to spend time with his father, who clearly is on his last legs, at least memory-wise. The son has a vague idea that he might come to better terms with the old man, and perhaps even get some answers to questions he’s always had about their relationship.
It’s significant that David is not a kid himself. Over time, he’s lowered his expectations, both for himself and his father. And, mostly, David is OK with that. He’s learned to put up with his father, to show him a degree of respect as an older person, and to be considerate of his father’s physical limitations. David doesn’t push, perhaps a personality trait that was developed from living with his parents, both of whom manifest aggressive tendencies.
David is a bit of a mediator, avoiding conflict as much as possible. That means a road trip with his father will depend entirely upon his ability to deal with the old man’s strongly-expressed quirks. Somewhere in the back of his head, David knows this, and has subsumed any resentment a son would naturally feel in such a relationship with his father.
So the miles roll by, and there is some gentle prodding by the son, and more irritated poking by the father. Then the decision is made to spend a night or two in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. It’s Woody’s home town, it’s where he and Kate grew up, it’s where relatives still live, and it’s where everyone knows everyone else — and everyone quickly learns that Woody has come into some money.
Remember, it’s only a MacGuffin.
Returning once again to his home state, Alexander Payne etches a portrait of small town life that echoes across America. Woody, Kate, David, David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and the rest of the characters who show up are part of a sprawling, dysfunctional family tree that is deeply rooted in its environment. They express their individuality by either accepting or rejecting their background, to one degree or another.
Ross, for example, seems to have grown away from Hawthrone, establishing himself and his family as an independent entity that is not entwined with his parents to the same extent as David, who has yet to figure out what he’s doing with his life. For all their arguments, Woody and Kate are also individual creatures; they don’t make a great couple, and maybe if they had been raised different they would have long ago separated, but that’s not in their nature. They stick together, unhappy as it may make them feel.
Working from an original screenplay by Bob Nelson, Payne made the decision to present the film in black and white, and it’s a brilliant choice. These are colorful characters who are (mostly) oblivious to their surroundings; they are focused on their own wants and needs. They grew up in the open landscapes that stretch for miles and miles, the kind of space that makes city-bred visitors gasp and stare in wonder. There is nothing wondrous about it to these people; it’s just where they live.
Payne and director of photography Phedon Papamichael, who previously worked together on Sideways and The Descendants, bring similar fresh eyes to their compositions, which are exquisite. (I was awed by a scene in Hawthorne when the large family is gathered together.) The camera moves only when needed, and it’s always placed exactly where it needs to be to tell the story and reveal the characters without prying.
The performances are very, very strong, with good supporting turns by Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach as one of Woody’s oldest “friends.” Will Forte is solid in a plaintive role, and June Squibb takes sensational advantage of the juiciest exposition dialogue in any movie this year. Bruce Dern suggests shades of meaning with the most subtle adjustments in his body language; he can say more with a quick squint than most actors can with a lengthy speech.
Lively and incisive, Nebraska lets light into a musty room, sweeps out the dust, and then sits down for a spell. Its enchanting realism is altogether refreshing.
The film opens exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, November 22.