What a splendid film Nebraska is. Alexander Payne’s latest since the slight but enjoyable The Descendants is a masterpiece of mood and observation. It’s like an early Jarmusch production if Jarmusch was interested in story (or, you know, pacing). It may be my favorite of Payne’s work and that’s saying a lot for a director with Election and Sideways on his resume.
Nebraska is one of those wonderful experiences, like The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, where the setting and characters stick with you well after the ending credits.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an elderly, alcoholic Montana retiree convinced he’s the recipient of a million dollar prize from one of those Publisher’s Clearing House-style scams. That he hasn’t won anything is obvious, even to him, but the hope that maybe he has sends him trudging on foot down the highway en route to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. No longer able to drive, a slave to the bottle and living with a wife who criticizes his every move, what else is there to live for?
That’s what his youngest son David, played with surprising effect by Will Forte, believes. What’s the harm in letting him play out his fantasy if only for a few days? Facing the uncertainty of a break-up and the malaise of his dead-end job, David offers to drive Woody to Lincoln. Partially to stop a stubborn Woody from trying to walk the thousand miles and partially to spend time with a man he knows but doesn’t understand.
What I love about Nebraska, and indeed Dern’s performance, is that Woody remains the same ornery, disagreeable coot from beginning to end. It’s what we learn about him along the way that allows David and our empathy to grow for him, so much so that we want him to actually win. Payne and writer Bob Nelson are too smart to allow that of course and find a much more satisfying conclusion but I was blown away by how endeared I was to a collection of difficult characters.
Nebraska’s realizations are subtle, insightful and strangely beautiful. Should I see it? Absolutely.