A couple years ago, Alexander Payne made a delightful little film called The Descendants. Though I personally wouldn’t rank it among the best films in 2011, it still picked up a well-earned Oscar win out of five nominations. Now it’s a couple years later and Alexander Payne has come back with Nebraska. It’s a film that trades the luscious panoramas of Hawaiian paradise for black-and-white views of the dull American midwest. While Descendants jump-started the career of young Shailene Woodley, the cast of Nebraska has a median age somewhere north of 50.
Still, there are a lot of similarities between the two movies. To start with, both movies put a heavy emphasis on family, especially with regard to family politics and obligations between loved ones. Both movies are also concerned with facing mortality, addressing past sins, and shaping the legacies we leave behind. Last but not least, Nebraska shows more of the same fantastic humor and heartbreaking drama that made its predecessor a Best Picture nominee.
Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern. Woody is a hopelessly senile old fart, ailing from decades of alcoholism and stubborn as a mule in his waning days. As such, when Woody receives a letter saying that he’s won a million dollars, no force in Heaven or on Earth can convince him that the letter is just a marketing sham.
So Woody is dead-set on going to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his winnings. He won’t send the letter back, you see, because he doesn’t trust the postal service to safely deliver a million dollars. And since Woody doesn’t have the money to book a flight, and because he can’t legally drive, Woody has spent pretty much every day sneaking out of the house and heading to Lincoln on foot. From Billings, Montana. Needless to say, Woody never gets very far before the police turn him back around.
Enter Woody’s youngest son, David Grant, played by Will Forte. Over the vocal objections of his mom (Kate Grant, played by June Squibb) and his older brother (Ross Grant, played by Bob Odenkirk), David figures that the best solution is to let this obsession run its course. So David takes some time away from work to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska. But there’s a catch.
Due to Woody’s declining health, they can’t go directly from Billings to Lincoln. They need to stop and rest for a while on the way there. And as fate would have it, Woody still has a lot of family and old acquaintances in the sleepy town of Hawthorne, NE, where he grew up. Naturally, word about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot gets around, old friends and relations come around asking for money, and of course no one believes that Woody has been duped. The whole thing escalates quickly from there.
Though Will Forte does a fine job playing our protagonist and everyman, this is Bruce Dern’s show from start to finish. The character works on a humorous level (as do all of the elderly characters, in fact) precisely because he’s so old. After serving in the Korean War and living to his advanced age, Woody has completely run out of fucks to give. He’s gonna do whatever he damn well pleases, and no one’s going to tell him otherwise. Yet the character remains likable precisely because he’s that old. When a dying man says that he’s earned the right to act like a cantankerous old bastard, who’s going to argue?
Yet the character is also compelling because of how much we learn about him as the film continues. We eventually learn that he was always a drunkard, that he had some old flames before he married, that some of his siblings had passed away (a few when they were only children), that he could never turn down someone who asked for a favor, and so on. Forte and Dern do a fantastic job playing their respective scenes of revelation, but it’s Dern who shines brightest when he visits the town’s taverns. It’s remarkable to see Woody visit all these places he knew and loved back in the day, only to find that no one there knows his name or any of his old friends.
Then we have Kate Grant, who’s a completely different kind of stubborn and cantankerous. I’m not gonna lie, Kate is a shrill little harpy with no regard for social graces, giving an earful of verbal abuse to anyone within earshot. Woody and Kate really are two sides of the same coin, except that Kate is more practical while Woody is governed entirely by his wants at any given time. Moreover, though you’d be forgiven for thinking these two hate each other for how much they bicker, there are a few scenes in which we see that Kate really does care for her husband.
Best of all, Kate is honest to a fault. Though Woody and Kate are both entirely out of fucks to give about what anyone else thinks, Woody tends to express that through keeping quiet. He doesn’t tend to explain himself because he doesn’t think he should have to. Kate, on the other hand, is more likely to tell the unvarnished and ugly truth with all the subtlety and destructive capability of an atom bomb. Even better, she uses that total dearth of tact to show just how much she cares for those she loves. When Kate calls her relatives out on their bullshit, it’s a showstopper. If it wasn’t for the extravagant F-bombs flying, it would easily be June Squibb’s awards clip.
Moving on to the supporting cast, we’ve got all manner of crackpots, oddballs, and scumbags. Easily the worst case in point is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a conniving bastard who makes a great show at pretending to be Woody’s friend when he needs something. We’ve also got David’s cousins, Bart and Cole (respectively played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), a couple of near-identical redneck brothers who are visibly dripping in sleaze. Aside from them, we’ve got all manner of family members too old to do much of anything except watch football, talk about cars they used to own, and generally take up space. Mary Louise Wilson and Rance Howard play the most notable examples.
Will Forte goes through most of the story playing off these different characters, and that does result in most of the film’s comedy, but all of this is still too much for David to handle on his own. That’s where big brother Ross comes in. Because Ross is the closest one to David in terms of age and temperament, he provides some valuable moments of support. Easily the greatest example comes when David and Ross decide to team up, break into a farm, and steal an air compressor. I promise that it makes much more sense in context, and the execution is wonderfully funny.
The cast is uniformly solid, playing their characters with just the right mix of humorous and heartbreaking as each case requires. It certainly helps that none of them are afraid to make fools of themselves. For example, when the news inevitably breaks that the million-dollar prize was a sham, everyone makes fun of Woody and calls him a fool. Yet they look like even bigger fools for buying into the exact same sham, and none of them stop to realize that.
On a technical level, the film is aggressively stripped-down. There’s no color, there’s barely any music, and the camera is mostly stationary. It’s a very clever approach, giving the film a retro feel that meshes nicely with the elderly characters and the theme of nostalgia. The no-frills presentation also does a lot to sell the old-town mindset, so bored and sleepy that even the slightest chance of a local millionaire would naturally make local news.
If I have one nitpick with this movie, it’s in David’s ex-girlfriend. Sideways alumna Missy Doty appears as Noel, who kinda-sorta breaks up with David near the start of the film. Noel never appears again and her relevance to the plot is borderline-nonexistent. Then again, she does lead David to ask about the beginnings of his parents’ marriage, so there’s that.
All in all, I really enjoyed Nebraska. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally compelling in some very inventive ways, though it certainly helps that Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb lead a phenomenal cast. I also appreciate how the film brought up a wide variety of themes relating to family and mortality, all of which will resonate with fans of The Descendants. The clever black-and-white presentation is another plus.
I know that this one isn’t screening in a lot of places, but it’s picked up a few Golden Globe nominations. I expect that the movie will get a lot more play as the Oscar season heats up, so keep an eye out.