NEBRASKA. Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, and Stacy Keach. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references). 115 min.
This American drama has six Oscar nominations to its credit, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress. Bruce Dern won the Best Actor Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and the movie is shot completely in black-and-white.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a fragile, cantankerous 77-yr. old man and is found by his son, David (Will Forte), walking along a busy highway on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody tells his son that he needs to go to Lincoln to collect $1mill. in a magazine sweepstake competition that he thinks he has won. Woody has a letter in hand from a Lincoln marketing company, but doesn't trust the mail system with a written reply. David informs his father that the letter is a scam, but Woody "just believes stuff that people tell him". Woody annoys everyone, including his long-suffering, acerbic wife, Kate (June Squibb) by insisting that he has to collect the money personally. He keeps on trying to travel all the way to Lincoln, and, in desperation, David decides to drive his father to collect the promised reward.
Woody has a fall in a motel room on the way and they stop off in Hawthorne, Nebraska, which is Woody's home town. Word spreads fast in Hawthorne that Woody is about to become rich, despite his son's entreaties to the contrary. In interactions with townspeople and family, things begin to emerge about Woody's life that his son didn't know. David learns, for instance, that his father was unfaithful to his mother before he was born, and that Woody accumulated a series of debts to many people in the town, including Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), his ex-business partner. Upset at his unpaid debt, Ed humiliates Woody by publicly revealing the scam to which he has fallen victim.
Arriving in Lincoln, Woody collects no money at all from the agency that duped him, only a hat marked "prize winner" for him to wear. David returns to Hawthorne to help his father regain his pride, and he and Woody both drive out of town to go back home, united more strongly than they were at the start of their journey because of their time together as father and son.
This is a road movie that develops forcefully and effectively into a very human and gentle tale about family-life in grass roots America. It is a film about discovery both at a personal and social level, and is directed very insightfully by Alexander Payne, who gave us "Sideways" (2004). The film has many wonderful, comically inspired scenes built around trivia and small talk, that marvellously capture human lives that are wasting away.
Dern's performance as Woody is absolutely true to character. He captures brilliantly the oddities and confusion of advancing age, the impact on old-age of too much alcohol, the fear of death ("I'm running out of time", he says) that we know is approaching, and the yearning to be noticed. Dern is entirely deserving of his Oscar nomination, and delivers a beautifully nuanced performance.
Payne's direction is sparse and moody, with a musical score to match, and the level of Dern's acting is reinforced compelling by excellent cinematography. The fact that the movie is entirely in black and white stresses the bleakness and decay of life in small-town America, and the melancholic reality of an era that has passed but has nevertheless contributed a great deal to the spirit of American culture. The film expresses a soul of America in the mid-west that once burned bright, but should not be forgotten.
This is a quiet, unhurried film that offers a reflection on the loss of time, and communicates a legacy of hope built around the values of caring people. To Woody, "love just never came up" in discussions with his wife. His family is flawed and imperfect, but ultimately loving. Woody had a son he thought didn't love him, but at the end of the trip he knows he was wrong.
This is a bitter-sweet, poignant comedy-drama about the developing friendship and affection between an ageing, difficult father and a misunderstood, caring son. It captures a lost era, and offers a deeply moving experience - to be enjoyed and quietly savoured.
Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released February 20th., 2014