Bruce Dern lights up Alexander Payne’s black and white masterpiece as a boozy and cantankerous old dreamer who hits the road with his son in search of a million dollars.
When we first encounter Bruce Dern stumbling down a Montana freeway, we see an old man who looks as if he’s lost his marbles. And it’s on that premise that Nebraska goes about telling the story of Woody Grant: the man who thinks he’s a millionaire.
Having received a letter in the post telling him he’s won a million dollars, Woody sets out, by hook or by crook, to go and claim what he rightfully owns. His son David (Will Forte) tells him it’s a hoax. His wife Kate (June Squibb) tells him he’s lost the plot. But to Woodrow T. Grant, it’s his ticket to a life-long dream.
Fuelled by boredom and frustration, David begrudgingly agrees to drive his dad to pick up his fortune in Lincoln, Nebraska. And therein begins one of the most memorable and moving films in recent years, set against the backdrop of the great American road to nowhere.
Shot entirely in crisp black and white, the bleak landscapes, anonymous gas stations and one-horse towns that are captured so poignantly become the canvas upon which Payne paints the story of Woody and David, driving hundreds of miles with nothing but wild, windswept plains for company.
A few bumps, bruises and beers down the line, they stop-off in Hawthorne, the barren town where Woody grew up, and where his long-lost family still reside. Empty streets, dingy bars and a distinct sense of desperation set the scene for run-ins with old adversaries, family reunions and an unwelcome reminder of darker days gone by.
Woody seems immediately at home back in his old stomping ground. But we see in his eyes that sharp sense of regression we all feel in hometowns we’d long forgotten. Of the people and places we thought we’d escaped, and invariably always end up running into again, whether we like it or not.
Screenwriter Bob Nelson, for whom Nebraska is the realisation of a life-long project, expertly brings into focus the psychological struggles of growing old. Woody and Kate are the archetypal American couple, bound together by decades of unhappiness and hurt, but still silently hoping to find something to shine a light over their family. Perhaps it’s that subtle radiation of hope – of blind relentlessness – that keeps Woody alive.
From the outset, the film’s dialogue is sharp, witty and touching. Squibb is superb as Woody’s sharp-tongued wife, sick to the back teeth of his delusions of grandeur but still a stoic presence in this cranky old man’s life. Will Forte is also immensely believable as the doting David, who cocoons his dad from the stark and unforgiving realities of life.
Dern has already gained widespread critical acclaim for his performance, and rightly so. For all of his alcoholic tendencies, brusque outbursts and sheer bloody-mindedness, we are still endeared to a man who is frail and fraught with the perils of old age. And for that, you can’t help but want him to walk away with his million dollars.
On surface level, Nebraska is a road movie about discovery. But throug h brilliant performances, stunning cinematography and most of all, a wonderfully well-told story, it becomes a bittersweet portrait of family. And what it means to be father and son.