For a thoroughly depressing movie about a confused older man, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska has a good number of laughs. What’s more – and this is important to note for a Payne film – not many of them come at a character’s expense.
Bruce Dern gives a wonderful, haggard performance as Woody Grant, aged husband and father of two grown sons. Possibly suffering from a mild form of dementia – the movie is never quite clear on this – Woody latches onto a junk-mail letter telling him he’s won $1 million. After a number of failed attempts to walk from Montana to the marketing company’s home office in Nebraska to claim his (non-existent) prize, Woody finally convinces his son Davey (Will Forte) to drive him.
Shot in bleakly beautiful black and white by Phedon Papamichael and featuring lovely music from Mark Orton (there’s a plaintive horn that sometimes goes off on mariachi-like curlicues), Nebraska is an unhurried movie, content to match Woody’s slow, deliberate steps. Like Woody, it falters on occasion (June Squibb has the thankless part of Woody’s harridan of a wife), yet it still affected me greatly. There’s a deep sorrow here about the way families frequently fail to communicate, even when death is staring them in the face.
Yet there are also laughs, especially when Woody and Davey stop in Woody’s childhood town and have a reunion of sorts with relatives. They’re largely a doltish bunch, painted by Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson with merciless precision. Davey’s cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) are only interested in how long it took Davey to drive from Montana and oafishly tease him when they’re not impressed with the answer. An extended family dinner mostly proceeds in silence. The move’s definitive scene may be the one in which nine or so men gather in the living room to watch, without comment, football on television. When one of them rouses himself to ask another about his truck, it’s as if a thunderclap has erupted.
Woody is a man of grunts and shrugs; nothing really matters because no one really cares.
The moment is funny because it’s true (while I’ve been at family dinner tables where no one stops talking, I’ve also watched football games like that). Yet the scene – and Nebraska overall – never fully tilts toward derision because these sequences emphasize the silence that has come to define Woody’s life. He’s become a man of grunts and shrugs; nothing really matters because no one really cares. (Forte’s earnest Davey is the movie’s lone, empathetic soul.)
He does care about that prize money, though, because it’s a shot at something remarkable. For much of the film, Dern allows a frightening vacancy to pass over his eyes, yet when the topic of the $1 million comes up, a light still flickers. It’s not the wealth – his big plans are to buy a truck and an air compressor – but the notoriety that invigorates him. “Did you see the look on their faces?” he asks Davey after others first hear of his potential winnings.
Dern won the best actor prize at Cannes for his performance, and the most impressive aspect of it is his restraint. He never tries to make Woody a codger (that unfortunately falls to Squibb). Instead, he’s content to let us probe the mysteries of those faraway eyes and raspy mumbles. We hear others’ opinions of Woody: bitter ones about his drinking from his wife and older son (Bob Odenkirk); fond ones from former neighbors, who recall a kind man often taken advantage of by others. We hold those contrasting tales in tension with the broken-down man we see, the one who no longer seems to care about making any sort of impression whatsoever. It’s heartbreaking.
Perhaps it was for the filmmakers as well, for Nebraska ends on a note that can only be called uplift. I usually resist those sorts of things, but I embraced it here. Even if the movie doesn’t fully earn the moment (I can sympathize with arguments to that effect), there’s no doubt that Woody Grant does.