While Nebraska may seem like a step back for director Alexander Payne in terms of budget and visuals, it’s actually a brave step in the right direction for his strengths: sharp characterization and funny, bittersweet storytelling.
Have a drink with your old man. Be somebody!
Mild spoilers ahead…
In many ways, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska represents a step backwards for the director. Shot in black and white with a much smaller budget than Payne’s last feature, the lush, Hawaiian The Descendents, Nebraska also marks the first time that Payne has directed someone else’s script since his debut. However, all of these things add up to what’s a cumulative step in the right direction.
Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a booze-addled old man from Billings, Montana who is picked up by police officers while walking on a highway onramp as he attempts to get to Lincoln, Nebraska. When Woody is later retrieved by his son, David (Will Forte), the officers explain that Woody believes he has won $1 million dollars in a mail sweepstakes, and that he is trying to get to Lincoln to claim the prize. Upon seeing his father’s ticket for the prize, David realized that it is a scam flyer designed to sell magazines, tells him to forget the matter, and takes Woody home.
When David gets Woody home, his mother, Kate (June Squibb), reveals that Woody has tried to get to Lincoln several times before, and she is growing increasingly frustrated with his foolish attempts. When pressed, Woody will only say that he wants to claim the money so that he can buy a new truck – despite the fact that the old man can no longer drive – and replace a long gone air compressor. An exasperated Kate finally tells David, “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!” David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is equally frustrated and recommends that Woody be placed in a nursing home. He reminds David that Woody was never much of a father, always emotionally distant and preferring a night at the bar to a night with his sons.
After several more attempts from Woody over the next few days, David finally agrees to take him to Lincoln if it will put an end to Woody’s repeated attempts to walk there by himself. David, too, is in need of some time away from Billings as he is going through a separation from his girlfriend.
Here, Nebraska enters into familiar territory for Payne. Much like his 2004 film Sideways, it tells the story of two unlikely companions on a road trip, but whereas Sideways took a look at two buddies searching alternately for love and sex over a bachelor’s trip, in Nebraska we have a father and son struggling to know each other after a lifetime of distance.
Like all of Payne’s work, Nebraska exists in a series of bittersweet moments that alternate between being darkly funny and unexpectedly moving. When Woody drunkenly returns to the hotel room in the middle of the night, he falls into a dresser and has to get stitches. When David decides to cancel the rest of the trip, Woody is indignant. He’s only concerned that he lost his dentures when he fell by the railroad tracks. The next morning he and David search by the tracks to find his dentures, and Woody unceremoniously plops them back into his mouth uncleaned.
David agrees to merely postpone the trip to Lincoln until the start of the next week if they can spend the weekend recuperating with Woody’s family in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, a fictionalized representation of Anytown, USA. Before long, Woody has spread the news of his newfound wealth among his family. David, who knows that the flyer is likely a scam, is horrified as the news spreads from the family, to neighbors and the town newspaper. Woody is the talk of the town, and soon his family members and old friends come around asking for loans and threatening to collect on long forgotten (or completely fictional) old loans.
It’s in Hawthorne with Kate and Ross both back in the fold for the weekend that David finally starts to understand some of his father’s peculiarities. Time spent with the town’s newspaper woman, an old girlfriend of his father, reveals that Woody was once shot down during the Korean War. It’s a story that David’s never heard, and she claims that Woody’s alcoholism and emotional distance began once he returned home. Visiting Hawthorne for the first time as an adult, David is finally able to see that even the quaint Billings, Montana is a step up from his father’s humble beginnings in rural Nebraska. While visiting Woody’s old homestead, he speaks about his own father who was also a harsh, distant man.
It’s in these moments when the film is fixated on the past that Payne’s choice to shoot in black and white feels so prescient. It’s like looking at old newspaper photos from a time gone by. It’s not fancy, but it‘s evocative, humble like Woody’s beginnings and the town of Hawthorne itself. What David saw as just a trip to occupy his mind from his relationship troubles and placate an old man has turned out to be a revelatory journey in understanding his parents. Even his brash mother has some stones to turn over.
Dern and Squibb are both fantastic, and their roles earned them both Oscar nominations. Dern’s portrayal of the boozy elderly Woody is a wonder, and much like Robert Redford’s work in All is Lost, represents a capstone on a great career. His lines are all short, reserved, and ornery, but Dern weaves them into a character we can somehow feel sympathy for. He’s everyone’s cantankerous and slightly senile grandfather. It’s illogical, but we love him anyways. June Squibb is the scene stealer of the year. The film’s funniest moments are hers as the brash old woman who’s completely lost her filter. Even Forte, a former one-note SNL comic, fits in perfectly into the cast.
Payne’s films work best when he’s examining the relationships between his characters. He makes them seem like the kind of people we know, and they’re always endowed with a wonderful sense of humor. He’s an expert at creating characters that feel real despite (or perhaps because of) their flaws. As David attempts to understand his father, he probes him for with questions about the decisions Woody made, but the always short spoken old man isn’t having any of it. Pressed about his decision to have children, Woody merely states his enjoyment of sex and the realization that if he kept at it he’d eventually end up with a few kids. It’s the kind of answer Woody’s prone to: funny, flippant, and not what David really wants to hear.
It’s only after another scare with the ticket that Woody finally quietly reveals his obsession with getting to Lincoln and collecting the money: He wants to leave something behind for his wife and his boys when he passes. It’s a quiet acknowledgement that he understands his alcoholism and distance have affected his family, and he somehow wants to make it right, even if it requires him walking to Lincoln to make it happen.
Payne has made a film that’s undeniably human, and it’s a step in the right direction for the director. He’s infinitely better suited for revelations through small moments than for the big(ger) budget of The Descendents, which was flourishing to look at, but rang hollow. The end result of the trip to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln is a lesson in humanity as David comes to understand what the money really means to his father. Sometimes a truck is more than just a vehicle to get around in, and family is family – no matter how frustrating.