D: Alexander Payne / 115m
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
When Woodrow “Woody” Grant (Dern) receives a letter saying he’s won $1,000,000, he heads off on foot to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The fact that he lives in Billings, Montana, means nothing to him, nor does his age or that he walks like someone who’s had a bad hip replacement (if what we see isn’t Dern’s natural gait then it’s an impressive piece of character development). Woody believes the letter wouldn’t have been sent to him if the offer wasn’t legitimate, and though it’s clearly dubious, his resolve to travel to Lincoln doesn’t falter.
When it becomes clear Woody isn’t going to give up on his plan to claim his prize money from the promoters in Lincoln, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him there, even though he knows the prize offer isn’t as clear cut as it seems. David is struggling to make sense of his own life, and plans to use the trip to work out his problems. His relationship with Woody is strained as well, and as the journey begins, shows no sign of improving. With a stopover on the way at Woody’s hometown of Hawthorn and a stay with various relatives who all seem to want a slice of Woody’s money, David needs all his wits about him to avoid both a family feud and the more violent reprisals that sleazy ex-partner Ed (Keach) refers to if Woody doesn’t pay back the money he feels he’s owed.
Nebraska‘s strength lies in its main character. Woody is a man who has found himself at a distance from his family and his life. The money has given him a new purpose, and its the non-supportive response he receives from those nearest and (hopefully) dearest to him that goads him into action. There’s a case to be made for Woody knowing that the money isn’t “real”, and there’s a further case to be made that he’s enjoying the attention he’s getting, but Woody is a plain man with plain desires, and while everyone around him attempts to complicate matters, Woody keeps his head down and only occasionally looks up to see what’s happening around him. And when he does, it’s hard not to think he looks amused at all the shenanigans he’s caused. Woody is a wonderfully nuanced character, one who appears lost in a fog of early-onset dementia, but he’s a canny creation as well, diffident about most things but quietly impassioned about the things that matter to him.
Using such a wonderful character as their base, director Payne and regular scriptwriter Bob Nelson have fashioned one of the most heartfelt and engaging movies of 2013. Shot in luminous black and white by Phedon Papamichael (This Is 40, The Descendants), and with a wonderful emotive score by Mark Orton, this is perhaps Payne’s most fully and perfectly realised feature to date. Dern is superb, an old man on the verge of giving up but who latches on to the prize money like a quest. Forte, usually a comic actor, here finds a quiet grace that instils his character perfectly, while Odenkirk as his brother Ross shines in a supporting role. Keach provides credible menace, but it’s June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate who steals the movie; she gets the best lines and delivers them all impeccably, including the best line in the whole movie.
With its bittersweet undercurrent and meditation on what it’s like to try and hold on to a sense of purpose as old age takes over, Nebraska is charming, heartwarming, life-affirming and altogether a gem. With its gentle, often hilarious comic moments and a clutch of winning performances, allied to a superb script and Payne’s sublime directing, this is one road trip you won’t want to end.
Rating: 9/10 – Nebraska tells a simple tale but adds several layers to give it an impressive depth; Payne continues to build an equally impressive body of work and stake his claim to being the US’s premier indie filmmaker.