It takes a little while to warm up to "Nebraska," only because the film wastes zero time getting right into the heart of its story. In the opening shot, we are introduced to the film's protagonist, Woody (Bruce Dern) who's attempting to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to retrieve his $1 million. He believes he's won a million dollars, but it's really just one of those sweepstakes things people occasionally get in the mail. Whereas other people would simply throw it away, Woody takes it to heart. He truly believes he's won despite his wife's protests. It's not enough to merely call Woody a simple man. It's that he's become lost in his old age. Confused, sometimes he's not all there in the head. But what remains throughout the film's running time is this man's insistence that he go to Lincoln to retrieve this money. Perhaps, after years of living the good ol' simple life, Woody finally finds the need to do something. Or, better yet, after coming to the end of a lifetime, perhaps he feels that he's earned this million dollars. Perhaps Woody feels as if he's owed something.
Kate, Woody's wife, doesn't buy it though. She's tired of having to deal with her husband. Flat out exhausted. The two of them have spent forty plus years together and she's as worn out as Woody, but a lot more coherent. This seems to be a common thread among characters in the film: simply being worn out, hung out to dry, they all feel that after all they've been through that they've earned something. They deserve something for their hard work in life, they deserve something after feeling this exhausted.
That's why it's not all that surprising when David (Will Forte), Woody's son, does not hesitate much at the thought of driving his dad to Lincoln. David, obviously, knows the million dollar thing is a scam, but at least he gets to get away from Montana. I really started to warm up to the film through David as I feel he's a useful, sensible guide through the various different characters and personalities that permeate the film. David's plight is very understandable. After spending an entire childhood of being ignored by his drunken father, David's not mad at his dad. He just wants to understand him, spend time with him. This trip to Lincoln may be his last chance to really get to know his dad and he's jumped at the chance.
Their trip leads them to some motels and bars in the middle of nowhere, it leads them to Mt. Rushmore which Woody feels is "unfinished," and then make an elongated pit stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and met his wife. Hawthorne is a town of just over 1,000 people so naturally, when one person catches wind that Woody has won a million dollars, the whole town knows about it. Woody is instantly a celebrity and people he used to know are now suddenly coming back into his life in a big way.
He visits his brother and sister-in-law in Hawthorne, where David meets his rather dim-witted, overweight cousins, probably the first time he's seen them in years. Here, we get a pretty good taste of what it's like in Hawthorne: pretty drab. Woody's brother just sits there and stares at the TV while his wife makes sandwiches. And the twin sons... also sit there, occasionally bragging about their ability to drive long distances in short periods of time.
Woody and David go to a bar in the town where they encounter Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach), who's an old friend of Woody's. Ed is delighted to see Woody, but when he hears of Woody's million dollars, things take an uneven turn. Ed wants some of that dough. When David tries explaining to Ed that the whole thing is a misunderstanding, Ed doesn't buy it. A lot of people in town don't buy it, including David's cousins. They figure Woody's trying to downplay the entire thing.
But Woody likes talking about his supposed winnings, even when his wife constantly shoots him down and chastises him for it. Bruce Dern has been getting a lot of praise for his quiet, understated performance as Woody, but June Squibb, who plays Woody's wife, was the real star for me. She's much more chatty and a real livewire at her age. I really enjoyed watching her character, even moreso than with David. I know people like her. Old in age, but young in spirit, and often quite defiant. She enjoys visiting gravesites so she can criticize the dead (specifically, deceased family members and old flames). She's unfiltered and can be vulgar, but there's also a sweetness to her. I don't think she acts the way she does because she's a mean, rude woman. I think the movie does a great job of making her multi-faceted and inherently interesting. Again, this is a woman who's constantly had to put up with a man like Woody all her life. She's worked hard all her life trying to raise two children and keep that house together while Woody's wasted himself way via alcohol. I love her and my favorite scene in the film is when she tells off a few family members who're trying to mooch off Woody and his millions.
Of course, Woody doesn't win any money at the end, he never was going to. He does manage to bond with his son over the course of the trip and does get to have his own version of a "comeuppance" against his old friends and family. And his son David is right there to help his father win some form of redemption and while Woody's rewards are rather small and simple, it at least somewhat justifies the need for this entire 800-mile trip.
Some have taken director Alexander Payne to task on what they felt was him ridiculing these people, but I very much disagree with that assessment. I don't think Payne is being mean to anyone here, I think he's simply being honest. I think he looks at his home state with a great deal of affection. There's a wide variety of characters here and I never felt myself laughing at anyone, except maybe those overweight twins. It would be dishonest to simply portray all the townspeople as nice and kind-hearted. Most people aren't, but some definitely are. I think "Nebraska" does a great job of covering that mix. Not every character here is given multiple dimensions, I'll admit that, but most of them are. Considering Payne is from Nebraska, I'm willing to give him a pass at anything that could be perceived as ridicule. Look back at your hometown. How do you view most of the people from there? Naturally, there's types of people we liked and other people, not so much. So, yeah, I simply feel Payne's just being honest with himself and with us in his portrayal of these characters.
While the film was wonderfully shot, I did have a little bit of an issue with the look of the black-and-white cinematography. Now, I support Payne's decision to use black-and-white because it does serve the low-key-ness of the story very well. Payne's movie is completely de-romanticized and the performances are put front and center. This gives off a raw energy, but the movie looked a little too flat unfortunately. It looks like they shot the film in digital and it shows. Black-and-white digital cinematography just doesn't have the same look and feel as shooting on black-and-white film stock. So while I appreciate what Payne was going for, things did look a little too muted.
Still, like I said, it was well-shot. Lots of subtle camerawork with well-placed pans. It reminded me of Peter Bogdanovich's "Last Picture Show," which is one of my favorite black-and-white films of all-time (in that it chooses to shoot in black-and-white for artistic reasons). There is a similar sort of bleakness to this film which really contributes to the film's themes of exhaustion, death, and small-town complacency.
Performance-wise, everyone here is pitch perfect. I mentioned Bruce Dern and June Squibb, but Will Forte also gives his character just the right inflection that really makes him seem down-to-earth and relatable. His character, David, really cares about his father even if he doesn't particularly understand him. The end of the film is much sweeter thanks to Forte's good-natured performance.
Bob Odenkirk, who plays David's brother in the film, also does a solid job here and his character says one of my favorite lines in the film. It didn't even really click with me until after I saw it, but there's a moment in the film where Odenkirk's character, Ross, visits Hawthorne to see his family. David asks Ross where the wife and kids are and Ross responds, simply, with "Recital." The moment is so well underplayed that it didn't even occur to me how funny the line is until afterwards. Not much is known about Ross's character, but the fact that he'd rather visit his boring family in Hawthorne, Nebraska than see his daughter's recital says plenty.
Bob Nelson wrote the screenplay so a lot of credit has to go to him as well. Nelson's writing, alongside these performances, lends to so many great little lines. Lines of dialogue that would seem rather innocuous on the page really come alive here. I was surprised with how often I found myself laughing. The film does such a great job of letting the plain-spoken dialogue speak for itself about what these people are like. They're as amusing and funny as they are human. And though I wasn't too keen on the overweight twins (who were funny, but were the only characters that I felt were played strictly for laughs), this is one of those rare movies where I couldn't help but admire nearly each and everyone of these characters. I have a feeling the more I watch this film, the more at-home I will feel with this world that Payne and Bob Nelson crafted.
And that's the main thing. It may take awhile to warm up to "Nebraska," but this film can be a very rewarding experience if you're willing to embrace it. It's an interesting change of pace for director Alexander Payne as it combines the laid back nature of "The Descendants" with the biting (albeit, subtle) satire that can be found in his earlier work. In the middle of a movie season where some pretty emotionally heavy films have been coming out one after the other, it's nice to have a film like this. A film that may be a little slight, but it's still a very nice, calm, and enjoyable ride. Even if the ride's just leading us to Lincoln, Nerbraska.