Woody Grant, the main character of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, is an obstinate and cantankerous man. His wife and sons simply don’t know what to do with him when he insists on travelling from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollars in prize money that they know doesn’t exist. So, when Woody (Bruce Dern) goes so far as to begin walking to Nebraska, his son David (Will Forte) caves in and agrees to drive him.
Fans of director Alexander Payne will find that Nebraska is cut from much the same cloth as his previous films such as The Descendants and About Schmidt. It’s a drama about the ways in which people relate to one another, but it’s also filled with levity uncommon to films of this nature. It’s no coincidence that Payne chose to cast actors with comedic backgrounds, such as Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame and Bob Odenkirk, who is best known for creating Mr. Show with Bob and David, as well as inserting comic relief into Breaking Bad. However, the real comedic heavy lifting is done by a stellar cast of extras and supporting players, many of whom have never acted or appeared in major films before. The actors have quirks unique to the Midwest, with mannerisms that simply could not be replicated.
In general, the film is a detailed exploration of regions and subjects of American culture that are rarely explored in Hollywood films. The film is gorgeously shot in black and white, and the grayscale tones serve very well in underscoring the flatness and plainness of the region. The film also explores the lives of aging and elderly people and the ways in which they are marginalized by our society. It’s a beautiful, if atypical film, and Alexander Payne has a keen eye for interesting locations to use for scenes, as well as interesting and unique observations about how elderly family members can become burdens on their offspring and often have little to live for after retirement.
The narrative of the film is simple, if meandering, and in this case it works in the film’s favor. A character-driven film like Nebraska can only succeed if the screenwriter recognizes that the narrative will only go so far. Screenwriter Bob Nelson takes great care not to let the narrative get in the way of the story – the quest for Woody Grant to get to Omaha never obstructs the interactions between Woody and the people around him – whether it’s the townspeople of the hometown he abandoned, the distant family members who haven’t seen him in decades, or his wife and sons.
Of course, the real revelation of Nebraska is Bruce Dern, who plays the starring role. Dern is 77 years old, so it’s certainly not a stretch for him to play an elderly character. However, to play a character so stubborn that you can’t help but root for him is no small challenge, so it’s no coincidence that Dern won the Best Actor Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Nebraska is not for everyone. However, fans of Alexander Payne will surely enjoy the film, and it’s a smart, very funny, but also very dramatic film that will touch audiences in a meaningful way.