|Left to right: Bruce Dern and Will Forte|
The opening scene to director Alexander Payne’s latest film Nebraska follows protagonist Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) as he is walking alongside the freeway. As he is questioned by a police officer on where he is going, he simply points his finger in the direction of Lincoln, Nebraska. Before we know anything about Grant’s personality or motives, we understand his psyche. This is an old man who is not all there and suffers from severe cases of wanderlust. This may sound like the set-up for a barrage of geriatric insults but as the opening credits close and we meet his son David (Will Forte), it is quickly revealed that there is much more going on. Woody’s senility isn’t the source of the film’s humor. It is actually from everyone’s inability to communicate properly.
Woody is an old man whose life sometimes comes across as a burden to his family in Montana. One day he receives mail claiming that he has won a million dollars. Based on his kooky behavior leading up to this, nobody believes him. It isn’t until David decides to humor him and the two go on a road trip to pick up the cash. After a few problematic events, they land in Woody’s old hometown in which nobody has seemed to change, except for their desire to share in Woody’s recent financial reward. The townspeople serve as an encyclopedia to Woody’s past that manages to explore everything from his past girlfriends to a stolen air compressor. Most of all, it explains why Woody isn’t entirely coherent at the start of the film in tragic ways.
The most impact comes from its looks at the world through the eyes of a forgotten individual. His insightful comments come across as pointless ramblings that blur with his senility. He wants people to respect him, despite only being attracted to his money. Woody longs for the world he once knew before alcohol lead him to become vulnerable to the worst tendencies. While he never directly expresses himself, the stories that David hears from local townsfolk paint a vivid picture of the hardworking man he used to be. People who shared generous favors now only want cash incentive for decades-old tasks. Over the course of two hours, the senile man who walked alongside a freeway becomes sympathetic not by the novelty premise, but by being hailed as the financial success story that never was.
The story is led by a charismatic performance by Bruce Dern. Where most actors would play Woody as either too confident or too clumsy, Dern manages to play it sincerely. From his hunched shoulders to his candid remarks on everything, he comes across as a man from a bygone era when ethics were different. He denies his alcoholism and passes off his flaws as memory lapses. He may be consistently bitter, but there is also some humanity hidden in his vulnerability. Even if it is indeterminate how much of his senility is real, his heart is in the right place. He wants the best for his sons, which is a large motivation for his trip. Woody is a character that works because of how undermined his life has been. Even if the quest isn’t fruitful, it is seen more as a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his family.
The supporting cast also has plenty of enjoyable moments. Will Forte as David manages to bring some concerned nuance on the road trip from hell. Even if he is mostly there as a babysitter to his father, he serves as the voice of reason and one of the few who just want to see Woody happy. While most of the other characters are different levels of ignorance, they all form a family dynamic that is a different form of dysfunction. Some only talk about money. Others only talk about car mechanics during football games. This is a universe that is fully realized with simple-minded characters that rarely come off as caricatures. June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate may be the secret weapon, providing a hilarious running gag of candid comments about deceased relatives in a graveyard. Much like Woody, she lives in the past and isn’t afraid to speak of the days when people found her attractive. It is like The Last Picture Show with old people hanging out at bars and living with limited access to the outside world, making it all the more eerie.
While the film seems to be ripe with characters with jaded views of relationships, it does feel like a loving tribute to the Midwest. The film’s black and white photography itself feels like a nostalgic throwback to older cinema. It could even serve as a comical commentary on the subject matter not being “entirely black and white” from a narrative standpoint. It is also fortunate to have gorgeous cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, whose landscapes become beautiful, meditative backdrops of vast open lands. Farms turn into silhouettes and the road becomes a place of wonder. The world appears to be simple and free of distractions, depicting cities lacking modernity. Set to a score by Mark Orton that blends bluegrass with horns, violins, guitars, and harpsichords, the settings feel like romanticized Americana. It may take place in 2013, but the admiration for old habits run deep in this movie and paints a love letter to senior citizens and the bond between a senile father and his caring son.
Nebraska may at times feel a little slow and predictable, but Alexander Payne’s gift as a director has been in humanizing unseen pockets of America. He gives them sincerity and allows the humor to flow from candid conversations that have cryptic clues to everyone’s personality. With a phenomenal performance by Bruce Dern, the novelty premise makes way for exploration of themes such as family, greed, nostalgia and self-worth. It serves as one of the most poignant road trip movies in recent years that also has a beautiful view of the Midwest. While Woody may be a very loopy and secretive character, he is the glue to the film’s complicated form of relationships. With a top-notch supporting cast, the film manages to be entertaining and heartfelt simultaneously in ways that feel authentic. Even if we don’t fully understand Woody by the end of the story, it has given us plenty of reason to respect him, which was all that he was searching for.