We see the haggard old man with long unkempt grey hair, walking briskly along the interstate highway outside of Billings, Montana. He manages to look simultaneously lost and headed toward an imaginary destination of only his knowing – a familiar sight for anyone with exposure to the crippling effects of Alzheimer’s. A cop sees him and pulls over his car. He gets out and puts his arm around the man: “Where you headed, buddy?” The old man replies, “Nebraska,” but doesn’t seem to realize anyone’s there. He keeps walking.
By the end of this movie, we will know a great deal more about this man – his past, his family, and his motivations for walking to Nebraska from Montana – and we may even have sympathy for him. What’s most remarkable about Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is that, despite being the center of the whole movie, this old man, named Woodrow “Woody” Grant, essentially remains a mystery. Who is this man? What are the major accomplishments and disappointments of his long life up to this point? What is he thinking about in those many moments when he stares blankly into space? Is he still “there,” so to speak? Some scenes seem to indicate a man handicapped by the debilitating effects of old age and memory loss; but other, more subtle moments show a man who may be content to simply keep his mouth shut.
We never know the answers to these questions definitively, and that is one of the many things that make Nebraska a great movie. As a filmmaker, Payne has specialized in characters facing moral dilemmas that are forced to abandon their comfort zones and find themselves while embarking on a journey. In Nebraska, that character isn’t Woody Grant, who is too distant a character to really demonstrate signs of moral maturation; instead, it is Woody’s youngest son, David, who picks up his old man from the police station and looks on with incredulity as Woody explains that he has a lottery ticket worth $1 million. Now all he has to do is claim his prize in Lincoln, Nebraska (that should be the first red flag). David knows two things: First, that his father is unable to drive and can only walk to Lincoln, and second, that no one else in his family – including his mother, Kate (June Squibb), and his older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) – will take him. David’s moral dilemma: Driving his father to Lincoln knowing full well that the lottery ticket is a sham and that his senile father is pitifully incapable of recognizing this.
Thus, Nebraska becomes a road movie, but only in the ways that Sideways was a road movie. The story becomes little more than a platform for smaller scenes and character exchanges which generate much more interest than whether Woody’s lottery ticket turns out to be authentic or not. Woody and David stop at Mt. Rushmore. Then, Woody has to be taken to the hospital with a bruise to the forehead. Then they make an extended stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where we learn that Woody and his wife grew up and started their family, until they relocated to Montana when David was about five years old. They see distant family members for the first time in ages. They drink. Kate and Ross visit. The residents of Hawthorne – most of whom seem to be around Woody’s age – begin to believe that they are in the presence of a millionaire.
At the center of Nebraska are two remarkable performances by Will Forte, as David, and Bruce Dern, as Woody. Both are worthy of Oscar consideration. Forte plays the straight man who is cast with the unenviable task of taking care of his father – a lifetime drunkard with a nagging habit of leaving the room and resuming his roadside trek toward Lincoln – as well as informing enthusiastic family members that, no, sadly the lottery ticket winnings are not real and no, they may not have any of the money for themselves. Forte wisely avoids making this character a perpetual sadsack (like Miles Raymond) but instead an initially reluctant witness to his father’s shenanigans who realizes that, in spite of his imperfections, his father may not be that bad after all.
Dern’s performance is a masterstroke of subtlety and physical expression. Woody hardly speaks in the film, and when he does, it usually comes in the form of stock one-word responses. He does not have any great extended speeches about his shortcomings as a father or what he intends to do with the money. He’s painfully honest, like many elderly people who may have thrown caution to the wind by giving up any “filter” they may have once had (Kate is the same way, and there is a wonderful moment in the film where she lifts her skirt for a long-dead suitor). Much has been written about the authenticity of Nebraska, which is a euphemism for the prosaic appearances of its actors. The filmmakers have spared nothing in making Dern look disheveled, hapless and weary to the core. That Woody commands the viewer’s attention in each frame he is in is a testament to Dern’s nuances and complete embodiment of the role. It is the best performance of the actor’s 53-year acting career.
Many things happen in Nebraska – a great deal of them funny, some of them bittersweet, all of them realistic and interesting. A good review need not spoil the details of these scenes. However, it is worth noting the careful way in which the screenplay, by Bob Nelson, contains many deep layers about who Woody Grant really is, but this information is only gradually revealed to David (and the viewer) by characters other than Woody. The effect is fascinating: We hear a lot about Woody as though he is an omnipresent, offscreen character – not the physical embodiment of the old man we see walking helplessly along the highway. Is this the inevitable tragedy of old age? Woody Grant’s cognizance is a mystery, but even more of a mystery is whether even he knows who he once was. Does he remain silent because of memory loss, or because life’s too short to constantly revisit the wounds (as well as the successes) of the past?
If the execution of Nebraska is commendable, than its conception is all the more remarkable. How in the world was Payne and his producing partners able to pitch this movie, with its 80-year-old protagonist set in one of America’s most unglamorous geographic settings, not to mention being filmed completely in black-and-white and with no A-list actors to speak of? Have you seen the poster for this movie? In this age of stringent market conditions and streamlined test screenings, what audience did they hope to find? After having seen Nebraska, I think the answer to that question is clear – an audience with a (dare I say old-fashioned?) yearning for sophisticated, yet economical storytelling with witty dialogue and compelling characters (judging by the applause it received at Cannes as well as the arthouse theater I attended, it’s safe to say such audiences still exist). No explosions, no sex, no CGI. Not so long ago, a movie like this would find audiences through “word of mouth;” today, movies like this are set aside by producers and audiences in favor of the latest Transformers sequel.
What Alexander Payne and his cast and crew have done is made a movie that observes its characters deeply, powerfully and above all truthfully. The ways in which they have managed to make Nebraska equally biting and warm-hearted can only draw comparisons to the wonderful ways Payne effortlessly oscillated between the emotions of glee and sadness in Sideways. When I saw that film in 2004, I left the theater moved nearly to tears – not because of its sadness, but because of its profound truths about people and their interactions with others. Nebraska leaves a wonderfully similar taste.
Rating: 4 stars