Alexander Payne captured attention with Sideways and has made several films since then. His pictures have many pauses and long takes, which often work well but sometimes just feel ponderous. With his most recent film, Nebraska, the effect is just right. This is a rewarding and engrossing work of art.
Shot in black and white, Nebraska is about the journey of an elderly man named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) from Billings, MT to Lincoln, NE to collect $1,000,000 he claims to have won in a sweepstakes. His younger son David (Will Forte) pleads with his dad to realize that it's a scam, but eventually agrees to take him to Lincoln since he was going to walk there otherwise. Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) both think Woody needs to go to a nursing home, but David indulges this flight of fancy. Eventually Kate and Ross join Woody and David--Kate takes the bus from Billings and Ross drives in a few days later.
A movie that begins as a road trip for a bizarre reason slows down in the fictional town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Two hundred miles from Lincoln, Hawthorne has 1,000 residents and is where Woody grew up. The family spends the weekend in Hawthorne, with the destination of Lincoln--and that fabled $1,000,000--awaiting the following Monday.
Over that weekend the misanthropic side of small town life roars its ugly head. Sure, it's nice that everyone knows your name in Hawthorne; but that means everyone also knows your business. The word spreads fast that Woody is a millionaire, and lo and behold it turns out that he owes a lots of debts in this small town. Kate defends him fiercely, as a man who is too trusting for his own good. She is plenty exasperated by Woody's many shortcomings, but loves him enough to guard him from the depradations of childhood friends and family.
Dern and Squibb have earned high marks for their performances, and rightly so. Dern shuffles through almost every frame, in a way that speaks volumes even if he barely speaks a word. Squibb speaks the truth plainly, fiercely, and sometimes even cruelly--but that's necessary when so many other people are duplicitous and scheming.
But for my money the best performance of the film lies with Will Forte. In Nebraska he squarely breaks away from the frat boy humor of trash like MacGruber, which was his general fare in the SNL days. Here Forte plays a grown son torn between love and frustration with his remote and laconic father. His mixture of irritation, bewilderment and attempts at reason are spot on. David loves his dad despite his stubborness, and Woody loves his sons even though he cannot say so directly. Late in the film we sense that Woody knows the $1,000,000 will never appear. But he also wants to have something--anything--to leave his two boys. Even on the slightest chance that the $1,000,000 is actually real, it is worth going to Lincoln.
Until it almost isn't. By the end of the weekend in Hawthorne, Woody's been robbed by his own nephews--they steal his sweepstakes paper and then leave it lying in the street when they see how unlikely the payout is. (This after David and Ross have spent all weekend telling anyone who would listen that the money isn't real.) Woody's also been humiliated by his ex-business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who spent the first half of the weekend shaking David down for a piece of the pie. Once Ed sees that the money isn't there he mocks Woody in front of all his old buddies at the bar, earning a punch in the face from David.
That punch stiffens David's spine, and he tells his dad that the jig is up--no going to Lincoln, it's time to go home. But Woody decides one last time just to walk there, 200 miles be damned. David finds him and brings him to Lincoln after all--where, of course, no money appears. Even so I'm glad David changed his mind and went to Lincoln. Love means going all the way, not stopping 200 miles short.