Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Composer: Mark Orton
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, The Hateful Eight) has received a piece of mail that says he is the winner of a million dollars. A resident of Billings, Montana, the elderly retiree decides to go in person to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up his winnings in person. Woody is found on the highway by a police officer and his family is promptly called. This is how Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a black and white road trip movie, opens. Woody, despite his family’s wishes, has decided to go to Nebraska no matter what, so his son David (SNL‘s Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to accompany him. Left behind are anchorman and eldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul) and opinionated put-upon wife Kate (June Squibb). Woody and David go on the road, but Woody’s alcoholism is an issue, and one night he looses his balance, his teeth, and gains a gash on his head. After a stint in the hospital, the two men are forced to find somewhere to stay for the weekend, and agree to be hosted by Woody’s brother in the old man’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, a place they haven’t been to in over two decades. Here Woody quickly lets slip out the fact that he has just won a lot of money, and suddenly is the talk of the town. The only issue? He hasn’t actually won anything. The letter is just one of those sweepstakes advertisements that are sent out trying to sell magazine subscriptions. But Woody is convinced he has won and that his life is about to change.
While the premise is a bit over the top and ridiculous, the film is decidedly perfect. It is at once grounded in reality, and also heightened and rendered ridiculous due to the nature of the motley crew of citizens that populate the town of Hawthorne. Alexander Payne has made a career out of blending satire, comedy, and social commentary. Whether it was Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Sideways, or Election, his movies have all hit it out of the ballpark in tone, originality, and story. Nebraska is no different. Working with a script by first-time feature film writer Bob Nelson, Payne delivers a quiet road trip movie filmed entirely in black and white. The shots reminded me a lot of The Last Picture Show, but Payne was able to find a humanity and lived-in-ness that, in my opinion, Bogdanovich was not. The eclectically bizarre townsfolk all read as realistic, and while the film at times may be poking fun at rural life in the United States and the types of people who insist on living in dying towns in America’s heartlands, it also seems to respect them and love them at the same time. The gorgeously stark cinematography just adds another layer to the overall effect.
The cast does an overall very good job. Odenkirk’s Ross is a forgettable character and his presence is not really ever earned, but that is the only exception in this film. Will Forte, playing it straight, is a surprising turn for the usually comedic and over the top performer. Those familiar with the actor’s tenure on SNL will remember him as the rubber-faced actor who always went for louder, broader, and dumber. So to have here him playing a grim and worn character who isn’t funny once throughout the film is somewhat of a shock. The fact that he does a decent job is also a welcome surprise. Stacy Keach as the primary antagonist and former friend/colleague of Woody does a good job with a bad character, something the character actor is quite familiar with at this point in his career, having churned out baddies time and again on screens both big and small. I especially liked Woody’s quiet and somewhat absent performance of Woody as a man who is a shell of his former self, someone who has lost parts of himself along the way, but who still keeps chugging along, holding on to whatever concept of dignity and duty he may hold, even if nobody else sees these elements in him. But the true star of the show is June Squibb. I’ve seen the actress playing bit parts of film and television before, but never really front and center. Kate is the true source of comedy in the film, delivering line after line, and hitting a bullseye every single time. I was in stitches every single time she opened her mouth, whether she was speaking ill of the dead in the best movie roasting scene I have ever seen, or insulting her husband at every turn. Even her delivery of a simple “Fuck off!” was as if I had never heard that insult before. She is amazing, and fully deserved her Oscar nomination (which ultimately went to Lupita Nyong’o that year).
I can’t believe it has taken me four years to watch this film, especially given how much of a fan I am of the director and how much I’ve loved his movies (Sideways being one of my personal favorites). I’m glad I finally gave it a chance, because it’s a gem. It delivers laughs, but also makes one think about the role family has in society, when duty and love meet, if they ever do, and how aging and the risk of becoming obsolete intersect, whether this takes place in humans or in a broader aspect in America itself.