There’s an old saying that claims that “the journey is the destination,” and few films have encapsulated this sentiment quite as eloquently as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a refreshingly unsentimental tale of family bonding that unfolds at the leisurely pace of a lazy Sunday afternoon when the clock seems to tick a few beats slower than normal and relatives linger around a dinner table as the sounds of a football game waft through the house. Shot in luscious black-and-white by talented cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and filled with endearingly understated performances that conjure the quiet poignancy of Bob Nelson’s perceptive writing, Nebraska is like a warm hug from that foulmouthed aunt who always reeked of booze but had a heart of pure gold -- it may seem awkward and off-putting at first, but you only realize how much it meant once you’re back at home and settling into your old routine again.
The first time we meet taciturn Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), he’s walking down the shoulder of a busy road in Billings, MT -- so determined to reach his unknown destination that he fails to acknowledge the kindly police officer who’s struggling to get his attention. When Woody’s dutiful son David (Will Forte) arrives at the local police station to pick him up shortly thereafter, we learn exactly why the old man was so singularly focused on his stride: Having recently received a sweepstakes letter stating that he has won one million dollars, Woody is determined to claim his prize in person at the company’s head office in Nebraska. Though David discerns right away that the letter is little more than a scam to sell magazine subscriptions, stubborn Woody already has tunnel vision -- nothing will stop him from obtaining his jackpot, even if he has to walk 800 miles on his own two feet to do so. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Woody’s outspoken wife Kate (June Squibb) or career-driven son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), but David is determined to humor his befuddled father nonetheless, eventually agreeing to drive him to the sweepstakes office personally despite having to call in sick to work to get the time off.
Shortly after the two set out, however, the road trip threatens to get sidetracked when longtime alcoholic Woody winds up in the hospital following a drunken fall. Pushing their schedule back to make time for his recovery, the pair plan to take a detour to David’s Aunt Peg’s house in his father’s hometown of Hawthorne, where Kate and Ross will soon arrive for an impromptu family reunion. When Woody runs into his old pal Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) at a local tavern and shoots his mouth off about his recent “windfall,” he becomes something of a local celebrity, and familiar faces come out of the woodwork to claim their fair share of the prize. Meanwhile, David learns more about his family during this one eventful weekend than he did during his entire childhood, prompting some deeply personal reflection that offers him a whole new perspective on the father who was always something of a mystery.
In his 2002 drama About Schmidt, Alexander Payne told the story of a bored retiree whose wife dies, sending him on an unexpected road trip to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding. Coming off of the scorching political satire of Election, the melancholic comedy of About Schmidt revealed the writer/director as something of a cynical curmudgeon trapped in the body of a talented young(ish) storyteller. That sentiment seemed to carry over into Payne’s breakthrough hit Sideways two years later, and in his next feature The Descendants, the specter of death hovered over the proceedings despite the director’s decision to once again focus on characters who should, by virtue of age, still have many good years in front of them. In Nebraska, that specter is so close to materializing that a simple shot of Woody sleeping with his mouth agape delivers subtle chills at the prospect that he may pass away before completing his journey -- however misguided it may be.
Alas, Woody always seems to wake up with a spark in his eye, even if the trials of each day and the unwelcomed memories of the past dull it to a flicker by nightfall. Like many fathers, Woody has a hard time expressing his feelings. They’re still there, but they don’t seem to surface until he’s had a few drinks in him, and even then they tend to come out the wrong way. As spoken by Dern, though, they never feel malicious or scornful. Woody is a kind man who -- at least up until this point -- allowed his fate to be dictated by his own indecision. Now that his memory is fading and his health seems to be failing, he longs to be proactive for perhaps the very first time. Dern conveys that drive with a sense of soulful urgency that belies his feeble gait. It’s a powerful performance that recalls Richard Farnsworth’s work in David Lynch’s affecting 1999 drama The Straight Story, and it’s wonderfully complimented by Forte -- a naturally gifted comic performer making some commendable headway into drama.
Fresh off his recent success in Breaking Bad, former Mr. Show mastermind Bob Odenkirk also appears to have caught a second wind as a dramatic actor, and though his character displays a very clear measure of ambition early on, there’s also a sense of compassion that comes through as he interacts with his brother and parents. Speaking of parents, June Squibb (who previously appeared as Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt) positively crackles with devil-may-care attitude while paying her respects (however disrespectful they may seem) at a local cemetery or addressing her family’s unexpected greed in no uncertain terms. Squibb seems perfectly in tune with her director’s incisive sense of humor, her pitch-perfect delivery cauterizing every wound as soon as it’s opened and allowing us to laugh through the proverbial graveyard. Keach, meanwhile, provides the proceedings with a perfectly punchable antagonist, and the rest of the supporting cast portray the natural familiarity of a family who appear so outwardly amiable that it’s easy to forget how dysfunctional they truly are.
Long before he reveals Woody’s true motivation for taking this trip, Payne has already shown us that it doesn’t really matter if he reaches his destination. But we want him to get there regardless, if for no other reason than to allow David a few more minutes with the father whom he barely seems to understand. Later, when that dutiful son performs a selfless act of kindness that we know is beyond his means, we start to wonder if, despite his penchant for cynicism, Payne is as compassionate at heart as the gruff old man in his film.
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- Released: 2013
- Rating: R
- Review: There’s an old saying that claims that “the journey is the destination,” and few films have encapsulated this sentiment quite as eloquently as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a refreshingly unsentimental tale of family bonding that unfolds at the leisurely pac… (more)