If the motif of Alexander Payne’s career has been a keenly observed empathy for the denizens of places usually gone unnoticed, the parts of the country glibly deemed “flyover” or the ones that people drive though on the way to more culturally enriched destinations, Nebraska then marks the first time that a Payne film takes place in the sort of territory so abandoned by time and economic downturn that even Payne’s previous characters would be reluctant to stop in. And even now, he finds remarkable beauty in men like Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the ornery old man at the center of Nebraska, a man of few words and many drinks whose son David (Will Forte) knows little more about him than the stalwart residents of Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s hometown.
Straddling that precarious line between partial lucidity and full-bore senility (and slowly slipping into the latter), Woody lights out from the home he and his wife Kate (June Squibb) built in Billings, Montana to claim what he thinks will be a $1,000,000 prize from a clearinghouse mail scam. Immovably insistent on heading for Lincoln, Nebraska, even if he has to walk there, David talks his mother into letting Woody enjoy his delusion for a few days, mostly relieved that his father is showing a bit of motivation toward something. And so father and son light out through the endless plains of middle America, occasionally stopping to relieve themselves or find Woody’s upper teeth, until David insists on stopping in Hawthorne to see some distant family. They find that, as well as the entire life that Woody left behind.
Nebraska may well be Payne’s angriest film to date. Rather than being a quirky stylistic choice, the black and white photography gives the film the aesthetics of a middle-era Springsteen album, a chronicle of dusty places long abandoned except by those who resolved to come into and leave the world in the same damn town. Woody has his own share of broken dreams, but his stubborn need to complete his quixotic quest puts him far ahead of his relatives, people who convene on Sundays to watch football in near-silence and drink in one of the two local taverns, depending on preference. And his wife and son, who see him disappearing in tiny increments, hope to have some sort of meaningful moment with a man they never particularly knew to begin with.
With his shock of untamed white hair and his distant gaze, Dern brings Woody to vivid life. This is a career performance for the longtime character actor, the sort of work that’s never showy but nevertheless commands your attention every time he’s onscreen. Even as his hearing (and really, his situational awareness) fails him more and more, Woody is never a bumbling old man, nor is he the typically irascible old coot who snaps out of his failing memory long enough to impart a profound life lesson or two. This is a man who never wanted to accomplish much of anything, who’s terrified of his fleeting knowledge of his own condition and wants to have his moment in the sun before his time comes. He’s not interested in reconciliation as much as he is in having just a moment of vindication against everybody he’s ever known.
Forte and Squibb make excellent foils for Woody, the former a layabout of another sort who doesn’t really have a handle on how human interaction works and the latter a battle-worn Midwestern lady who’s put up with more than her lion’s share of Woody’s bullshit and yet sticks around. She looks upon her wilting husband with a mixture of pity, revulsion, frustration, and God’s-honest love, and it’s a more honest portrayal of late-stage marriage than most films will ever bother to approach. Stacy Keach also turns in great work as a former business associate of Woody’s with an eye on his old buddy’s newfound fortune, and Bob Odenkirk appears in a perfectly brief turn as a small-town anchorman who’s the pride of the Grant family by process of elimination more than anything.
The real star of Nebraska, even beyond Dern’s tour de force, is the local color, the inhabitants of Hawthorne who shade in volumes about the film’s leading foursome without saying more than a few words. While Payne is clearly making some vicious points about the nothingness of Hawthorne’s existence, these are hardly the yokels that inhabited the margins of About Schmidt. There’s a warmth beneath all the cultural commentary and dilapidated buildings, a concern for what will happen to this place when the last resolute gatekeepers expire from the world. The old worry for the young; one mother talks about her fear of young men being tempted by drink and by “all that other stuff” that so often destroys rural youth. And for Woody, triumph doesn’t require a lot. The film’s pitch-perfect ending shows that triumph, more often than not, is relative. In the world of Nebraska, sometimes it only takes a small gesture of kindness or two.