Nebraska (15)

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Nebraska (15)

  • Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Duration: 114 mins
  • Year: 2013

Curmudgeonly Woody Grant takes a piece of prize notification junk mail to heart and embarks on a cross-country odyssey to collect the million dollars he believes is waiting for him in the titular state.


Alison Rowat's Review

In About Schmidt and Sideways, Alexander Payne showed himself to be a map-maker for the lost male. Be it a father trying to reconnect with his daughter, or two mismatched amigos sloshing their way through wine country, the Nebraska-born director has charted a way through male growing pains with a tender heart but an unflinching gaze.

Nebraska, his deeply moving, gently funny drama, finds him a little further down the road, looking at what happens to children when they begin to parent their parents. Although the story concerns a trip from faraway Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, many will recognise the signs and lay-bys as surely as if they passed them every day. This way to the pit stop of exasperation, the overnight stay in guilt, and the breathtaking detour into the depths of familial love. Fasten those seatbelts indeed.

Payne’s picture begins, aptly enough, on a stretch of tarmac. Woody (Bruce Dern) has been found by police walking up an off-ramp. From the look on the face of his son David (Will Forte) when he is contacted, this is not the first time dad, deep into his seventies, has been found wandering. This time, though, is different. Woody has in his hand a piece of paper telling him he has won a million dollars in a prize draw. Being an old school type, he wants to go to the firm’s head office in Nebraska to collect in person, a journey of a couple of days and more than 800 miles.

When no amount of reasoning by his wife Kate (June Squibb, also in About Schmidt) or two sons will convince him that this is just a marketing stunt, David decides he might as well take the old man there. With his job going nowhere and his relationship in the same state, he has nothing better to do. And besides, it will be good to spend some time with dad, or so he thinks.

Dad, though, is not now, nor has ever been, father of the year material. He is a semi-dry drunk, a man enraged that he can no longer booze as he once did, or do anything as he once did. David, meanwhile, is the archetypal child of an alcoholic, the eternal child doing his best to please a man who can never seem to be happy. If you were hitchhiking when this pair came along it would be best to try the next car.

There is no shifting the back-seat driving audience, though. By this point they will be as taken by Dern’s performance as the Cannes jury who awarded him the Best Actor prize this year. With his mane of Moses-like white hair, the Coming Home and Django Unchained star is almost unrecognisable at first. More than half a century in the business, Dern is a Hollywood soldier oft mentioned in despatches but never (Coming Home apart) given a real chance of glory. In Nebraska he has an opportunity to change that, and he seizes it with everything he has. As with George Clooney in Payne’s The Descendants, one leaves the picture as if appreciating the depth of Dern’s abilities for the first time.

As commanding as his performance is, this is a ensemble picture. Forte is perfect casting as the downtrodden David, a son who desperately wants to do his duty by his elderly parents while never quite knowing what they want. He chides and cajoles his dad for his stubbornness and continued boozing (“Beer’s not drinking,” Woody tells him), and the way he talks to Kate. Kate, though, is her own force of nature. As with Dern, Squibb’s performance is a wonder to behold. Given some of the funniest lines in Bob Nelson’s screenplay, she delivers each one with exquisite timing and maximum pep. If anyone knows Woody it is Kate, and she is gloriously unafraid in letting him know it.

Also worth noting is the performance of Stacy Keach, who plays an old associate of Woody’s. Their acquaintance is rekindled when Woody and David stop off to visit relatives in the place Woody was born and brought up.

In what is the picture’s funniest segment, Payne and Nelson have a ball with Woody’s in-laws and their small town, mid-Western ways. Though the town is initially as sceptical as David about the big prize to come, word soon gets round that Woody might be about to come into money after all.

Nebraska is as much a look at middle America as it is of family in general. Shot in crisp, clear black and white, the landscapes could have come straight from the lens of Ansel Adams. These are the heartlands, a place the entire country tends to consider its spiritual home when the mood takes it. So it is the perfect place for David to find out more about his father, and by extension himself.

It is Payne’s great gift as a filmmaker to take a portrait of the particular, in this case one family, and make it universally appealing. In Nebraska, consider the welcome mat laid down.