Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ is well-worth the journey

Bruce Dern gives the performance of a lifetime in 'Nebraska'
Bruce Dern gives the performance of a lifetime in ‘Nebraska’

Just to clear things up for some of the people who were sitting near me when I watched Nebraska, the terrific new film from director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants), it has no connection to the album of the same name by Bruce Springsteen.  Bob Nelson based his screenplay on his own experiences visiting a small town in Nebraska and from news stories about people showing up at the offices of Publisher’s Clearing House, believing they’d won the big sweepstakes prize.

“Woody Grant” (Bruce Dern) thinks he has won that big prize.  He and his wife “Kate” (June Squibb) met, married and lived a good chunk of their adult lives in Hawthorne, Nebraska before relocating to Billings, Montana.  It is in Billings that the film opens with Woody’s son “David” (Will Forte) having to go to pick up his father at the police station.  Woody was planning to walk the 800 or so miles to Lincoln, NE to claim the million he’s convinced he won.  After all, he got a letter saying he’d won, somehow ignoring the conditional “if” portion that made winning contingent on his number having been selected.

David doesn’t agree with his mother or brother “Ross” (Bob Odenkirk) that it’s time to put Woody in a home.  Realizing his father really wants to make this trip, and that it would be a chance to spend some of whatever time Woody may have left with him; so he decides to drive him to Lincoln.

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Will Forte, Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach in a small bar in Hawthorne, NE in ‘Nebraska’

After some interesting adventures along the way, they wind up in Hawthorne, forced to spend the weekend there.  Family gathers and as word of Woody’s good fortune spreads, everyone wants to congratulate and make a fuss over him.  Then there is his old business partner “Ed Pegram” (Stacy Keach) who wants more, along with some family members who want to share in Woody’s newfound wealth.  The plot thickens when Kate and Ross come to Hawthorne.

Payne makes brilliant films and this is no exception.  Many of the familiar themes of his movies are present here.  Infidelity.  Travel.  Complex relationships between parents and children.  But there are also differences.  Perhaps this is due to the fact Nebraska is the first film of Payne’s where he did not write the screenplay.  If that’s the case, he chose the perfect vehicle with which to begin directing the works of others.  Nelson’s script is very funny, moving and combines drama and humor in perfect balance.  It also shows just how difficult the dynamic between parent and child is when the child is an adult and must take on more of a caretaking/parenting role.  A deft touch is needed to do this without humiliating the parent.

Bruce Dern and June Squibb are perfection in 'Nebraska'
Bruce Dern and June Squibb are perfection in ‘Nebraska’

The choice to shoot in black and white was an inspired one.  It helps to paint the portrait of the fictional town of Hawthorne as stark and barren as well as highlighting what seems to be a limited amount of emotional connections between the main characters.  The feelings are there, buried beneath the façade that decades of troubled relationships will create.

Bruce Dern gives what is probably the best performance of his life.  Known most for his portrayal of villains and heavies, this performance is reminiscent of his more understated performances, like Smile and Middle Age Crazy.  His Woody is restrained but still incredibly well-done.  More so because the character is actually quite limited in scope.   June Squibb is wonderful as Kate, as plain-spoken and graphic as Betty White was in Lake Placid.  They both, along with Will Forte, are worthy of consideration as awards season approaches.

I look forward to seeing Nebraska again.

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