Father and son
Payne goes back to his state of origin, with another road trip, and is cruel in order to be kind in this heartbreaking little tale of a not very accomplished son Dave (Will Forte), who sells TV’s and stereos (and has just been dumped by his live-in girlfriend), trying to spend some quality time with Woody (Bruce Dern), his alcoholic, eighty-ish, borderline-Alzheimer’s father. But he doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, Dave says, he “just believes what people tell him.” And he’s gotten one of those letters promising him a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize and believes that. So Dave gives in to Woody’s stupid, crazy attempts to head out to collect the nonexistent million dollars, takes time off from work and drives him from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska for it, to shut him up, and spend some time with him. Only along the way they stop at the little town of Hawthorne in central Nebraska where Woody grew up, and there are scores to settle there and memories to return to.
Woody is a simple man. He speaks little, but he speaks truth. His wants are few. His only desire with the million dollars is a new pickup truck and a compressor. These are not things a man needs a million to buy. David may be able to make his father’s dream come true.
Following a screenplay by Bob Nelson, shooting in no-nonsense digital black and white, Payne deftly handles what may seem a simple story but in fact works on many levels, private and public, present and past, and, of course, serious and comic. Woody’s boozy naiveté also serves as a laser beam to delineate the pettiness and greed of many and the authentic sweetness of a few in his old home town, with his blunt-spoken wife Kate (June Squibb of About Schmidt) also exposing secrets and lascivious details, when she comes to town too. Hovering in the occasional foreground also are Woody’s older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local Billings TV anchorman, and an old garage business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), one of the greedy ones. But much of the little town turns greedy, when they hear the false rumour of Woody’s coming wealth. There are a lot of inarticulate, nearly comatose old men too — as well as mindlessly stupid younger men. This is where Payne’s portrait of rural Nebraska, rural America, perhaps, becomes hilariously cruel. But the cruelty is offset by the sweetness that remains when all the pettiness has been sifted out.
The visit to Hawthorne is fleshed out with various events that inform Dave about Woody’s past. The town would make him a celebrity, and sends a boy to shoot his photo. They go to the paper, and meet an old flame (Angela McEwan), who lost out to Kate. She shows him a story about his Korean war service; Ed Pegrem tells Dave about how Woody wanted to leave Kate for a Native American woman. When Kate and Ross show up they all go to visit the roomy farmhouse, now derelict, where Woody grew up, and an effort to settle a score with Ed leads to a comedy of errors.
This is not only a blunt picture of rural, working class America. It’s a stark picture of families. And it’s a clear-sighted look at age. While some looked at Payne’s last film, The Descendants (NYFF 2011), as too conventional, a soap opera, others may look at this one as too caricatural. It’s a tragicomedy, its heartbreaking realities freely laced with guffaws. It is, in any case, a wonderful opportunity for actors (who usually love to work with Payne), and a central role showcase for his talents Dern, who has so often played quirky character parts, had not expected to be given. It’s an opportunity he took good advantage of, delivering a performance that is both funny and real. (He’s said that the non-actors used in the film helped keep him honest and on his toes.) Also in every scene with Dern, Will Forte, mostly a comic and TV actor, has said he could hardly believe his luck in getting this part, and he too performs with a simple authenticity that touches the heart. This is the kind of film that may keep you laughing, and then get you starting to cry as you walk out of the cinema. For me The Descendants was richer and more enjoyable. But Nebraska may cut closer to the bone.
Nebraska debuted in competition at Cannes, where Bruce Dern got the Best Actor award. It has shown in a number of other festivals including the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. UK release 6th Dec.
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Runtime: 115 min