I missed NEBRASKA when it came out in theaters, but I was eager to see it on Blu-ray because as a longtime fan of Bruce Dern, I wanted to see his Oscar-nominated performance.
It was well worth the wait.
In NEBRASKA, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a man clearly in the final stages of life, who may or may not be slipping into Alzheimer’s. He lives in Montana with his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb), and his present existence is lost and directionless. The film opens with him wandering along the highway where he’s picked up by the police.
At the police station, Woody tells his son David (Will Forte) that he was walking to Nebraska to collect the million dollars he had won. Woody shows David what he believes to be the notice proving that he’s won a million dollars. In reality, it’s a publishing clearing house letter, and David tries without success to tell his dad that this doesn’t mean he’s won a million dollars, to which Woody responds that it must be true since it says so in the letter.
Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) along with Kate wants to put Woody in a home, but David feels bad for his dad and in a spur of the moment decision, in part because he’s in a rut with his own life and could use the time away, decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David understands that the money isn’t the real issue for Woody. The real issue is his dad sees his life as worthless, and he needs a purpose to get out and do something, in this case to take a road trip to collect his million dollars.
So father and son head off to Nebraska and end up in the town Woody grew up in, where they reunite with Woody’s extended family, his brothers and their adult children, David’s cousins, as well as Woody’s former friends and acquaintances. Of course, when people learn that Woody has “won a million dollars” he becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, even being asked to do a newspaper interview. Soon things take a darker turn as family and friends alike begin to ask Woody for some of his winnings, and one former friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), even makes threats against him.
NEBRASKA is a slow-paced slice-of-life movie about life in mid-western America which reflects the sadness and poor economy of the past decade. It certainly paints a less than flattering picture of rural America.
As advertised, Bruce Dern is excellent as Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic whose life has seemingly passed him by. With his mental faculties in a deteriorating state, he’s a sad lonely figure who seems to have made the realization that his life wasn’t much to begin with. In one of the movie’s most poignant moments, near the end, Woody tells his son David why the money means so much to him, as he wants to be able to leave something to his children after he’s gone, and he wants to do this because he realizes that without this money, he has nothing to give.
Dern’s performance reminded me of Frank Langella’s similar performance in ROBOT AND FRANK (2012), a film where Langella played an aging father and former jewel thief dealing with a failing memory due to Alzheimer’s, the difference being Langella’s character had more spunk and was still up for the battle. Dern’s Woody is on his last leg. He’s tired, worn out, and aimless, with nothing seemingly to live for other than collecting his million dollars. To Woody, there hasn’t been much in his life worth getting exciting about other than booze. He’s not a character you want to look up to or emulate.
Yet, there’s more to Woody than meets the eye. On their journey together, David learns some things about his father that he never knew before, things that help explain his father’s behavior over the years. David learns that Woody was shot down over Korea, and that when he returned home, he was never the same. David also meets a woman running the local newspaper who tells him that years ago she almost married his dad, but lost out to David’s mother. David seems shocked to learn that another woman would even have feelings towards his dad, let alone be head over heels in love with him.
As David, Will Forte is almost as good as Dern, playing the son who loves his dad and is trying to do right by him, in spite of what he sees as his dad’s efforts to make things as difficult as possible. But unlike the rest of his family, he understands his dad and is always ready to cut him some slack and do what he can to help him.
June Squibb turns in a potent and hilarious performance in her Oscar-nominated role as Woody’s wife Kate. She’s a take-charge no-nonsense woman who’s constantly berating and talking down to her husband. Still, she gets the most laugh-out-loud moments in the movie.
Bob Odenkirk, who played the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman on TV’s BREAKING BAD (“better call Saul”) is also memorable here as Woody’s oldest son Ross, who sides more with his mom Kate than Woody. And Stacy Keach is sufficiently cold and villainous as the who-needs-a-friend-like-this Ed Pegram, who makes it clear to David that his dad owes him money, and if he doesn’t pay up, there’s going to be trouble.
The entire cast is very good, but the film belongs to Dern, who does a nice job creating the character of Woody Grant, a man in the deep twilight of his years, sad, lost, and barely cognizant of what’s going on in his life, yet he remains sensitive enough to know that the million dollars gives him the opportunity to leave something to his adult sons, which obviously is a value that is important to him. Woody is not a loser. He’s an alcoholic.
Dern also gives Woody a quirkiness that is quite funny. One of his best scenes is when David asks Woody about his relationship with his mom, and Woody admits that he was never really in love with her. He married her because she asked him, and he figured, why the hell not? David is shocked to learn that his parents didn’t even talk about having kids, that the extent of their planning was that Woody “liked to screw.” The scenes with Woody’s brothers and extended family are priceless.
Director Alexander Payne has made another deliberate paced slice-of-life quirky drama that captures American life in a way that is not always flattering, yet always seems heartfelt and sincere, and so does not come across so much as a critique as it does a sad rendering.
While I enjoyed his previous films THE DESCENDANTS (2011) and SIDEWAYS (2004) better than NEBRASKA, in that both these films possessed more energy, I did prefer this one more than his earlier effort ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002). All of these films have been about journeys, as the main characters in these stories take a trip and learn about themselves. The journey in NEBRASKA may be the saddest of all of these, as Dern’s Woody might be the most desperate of all the characters yet in a Payne movie. Yet, the film is not a downer, and the ending to this particular story is certainly satisfying and uplifting.
The screenplay by Bob Nelson tells a memorable story about a man who at first glance seems like a poor candidate to build a story upon, but there’s more to Woody than meets the eye, and it’s these revelations that give both the character and his story some depth. Nelson’s story also has something to say about life in rural America, families, and what it means to be a man. Woody often seems to be fighting not only for his legacy but also for his manhood. He even admits that he drinks because he has to live with David’s mother. In fact, in scenes with Woody’s extended family, all the men sit silently in front of the television, while the women speak actively and aggressively in the next room, as they are clearly the ones pulling all the strings.
NEBRASKA is more than just a story about life in rural America. It’s also a portrait of how families interact, how people age, and how elderly parents and their adult children treat each other. It tells the tale of one man who seems ill-equipped to deal with these things, yet somehow, in the single act of wanting to leave something for his children, he does.