Alexander Payne mines unusual ore veins to find cinematic gold. While studios reboot series and make remakes of remakes, Payne turns the familiar into the remarkable and normal people into fascinating, unforgettable characters. His previous movies – Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, and The Descendants – will never have “Part 2” added to their titles. This discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary continues with his new film, Nebraska.
When we first see Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), he’s shuffling along the shoulder of a highway on the outskirts of Billings, Montana, intending to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska. The police pick him up and have his son David (Will Forte) collect him. Woody’s a long term but gentle alcoholic who’s become fixated on a sweepstakes letter he received in the mail telling him he’s won a million dollars. He doesn’t trust mailing back the response to the company’s Lincoln location, so he’s decided he has to go there to pick up his winnings.
Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) is not one to suffer in silence. Indeed, she has almost no governors when it comes to speaking her mind, much to David’s chagrin. His older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is disconnected from Woody, focusing instead on his local television news career. After repeatedly telling Woody that he hasn’t won anything – and having to bring him home again when he tries to head for Lincoln – David decides the only way to put an end to Woody’s obsession is to take him to Lincoln himself. The trip becomes a voyage of discovery for David when they make a stop in Woody’s Nebraskan home town, the first time David has been back since he was a child. He comes to see there’s much more to his father than he ever saw before.
Dern inhabits Woody seemlessly, underplaying the role in a natural way that makes you forget he’s acting. Dern has had a fascinating career, having worked with Alfred Hitchcock and being one of the few actors who killed John Wayne on screen. He was also Tom Buchanan in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, a role that was close to his upper-class Chicago background. He’s kept busy in supporting roles over the years, including an appearance in last year’s Django Unchained, and he played Bill Paxton’s father on the HBO series “Big Love.” It’s wonderful to see him again in a lead role.
Just as wonderful is Will Forte’s performance as David. After years as a comedic actor (Saturday Night Live, MacGruber) and doing voice work for animated shows, he brings a soulfulness to the role. June Squibb has had an active supporting actress career, and worked with Payne on About Schmidt, playing Jack Nicholson’s quickly departed wife. This time, though, she just about steals the film as the straight-talking Kate. Another standout piece of casting is Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner Ed Pegram. Even at 72, Keach can project a physical power that is intimidating.
The original script by Bob Nelson captures the idiosyncrasies of the characters in a clear-eyed way that never drifts into sentimentality or schmaltz. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (The Ides of March, 3:10 To Yuma, Sideways) have shot the film in glorious black and white to capture the beautiful bleakness of the prairies. The score by Mark Orton has an organic, natural feel that provides strong support for the images on the screen.
This movie well deserves its Academy Award nominations (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography and Original Screenplay). However, if you’ve seen this film, you’re the one who has already won. After the formulaic pabulum that you usually find at the movies, Nebraska will renew your faith in the power of the medium.