Review by Pete Mason
It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. That’s the crux of Alexander Payne’s film “Nebraska” and also the way the film is laid out. This is not a road trip film, but rather a journey to find a grand prize that doesn’t exist, making the middle part of the film, which finds David Grant (Will Forte) driving his dementia-addled father Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, an outstanding and brilliant display. Some 200 miles from Lincoln (in Hawthorne, Nebraska) is where the story develops into something truly compelling, while the beginning in Billings and even the film’s closure pale against the trip Forte and Dern take. The trip, not the starting or ending point, are true on screen as well as in proverb.
Bruce Dern plays a retired, if ever fully employed, mechanic and Korean War veteran, closing out a trilogy of films where he has played an emotionally struggling vet, including “Coming Home” and “Black Sunday.” With dementia setting in, Woody Grant is confused as to a letter he has received saying he has won a million dollars. Despite memorizing the letter’s content, he neglects to realize it is all a scam to get you to buy magazines. He sheds the confusion and sets his sights on Lincoln, heading east, even walking out of the house repeated and determined, until his son David realizes he has nothing to lose and embarks on the journey with him. Dabbling in their father-son history and shared alcoholism, the two do not bond. They don’t hug. They don’t resolve anything between them, although they occasionally rehash old battles. What they do is simply look like Midwesterners driving in cars from place to place, without much to show for it but fumes, worn skin and sun-scarred eyes.
That’s where the film almost lost me early on. “Nebraska” took a half hour before the film got to the journey and hooked me in. What didn’t help was that the state of Nebraska and the Plains states are presented as incredibly boring and no one avoids small-town life without moving to, say, Billings. To make early engagement of the film tougher, the movie is filmed in black and white, which takes away the scenery and setting, and puts the onus on the actors and lighting. The black and white does, however, make the emotional connections of the actors stronger with the shadows and light falling where they may, and the filming grasps the immensity of the Great Plains without letting colors affect the view. Despite adding to the drabness of the region, it reflects the calm, soft-spokenness of the characters, making the film far more compelling, albeit in an odd way.
To describe Midwesterners as soft-spoken is an understatement, and Payne’s home state of Nebraska is portrayed in this manner, with a combination of politeness and brevity. Few words are needed to be spoken in many instances in the film. Ditto a lack of engagement, embellishment or details in nearly every conversation. Plain and boring – that is how the Midwest is framed, where a trip to win a million dollar prize (that doesn’t even exist) is about the most exciting thing there is to do.
The acting throughout the film is top notch, as Bob Nelson’s first ever big-screen script is brought to life with a perfect cast. Bruce Dern sets himself up for a guaranteed Oscar nomination, with what looks like limited effort but is simply one of the Hollywood greats since the 1960s rounding out his later years with a powerful performance, ala Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy,” but with less coronation surrounding his acting (he’d prefer it that way). The delightful June Squibb is sardonic as Kate Grant, Woody’s wife, with her filter turned off whenever she has something to say, but in some capacity, she still loves Woody. Akin to Paul Giamatti’s classic line in Payne’s “Sideways” (“I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot”), Squibb’s “Go fuck yourself” is simply one of the best ever. During a scene at the cemetery where Woody’s family is buried, Kate lays them out as pathetic and unaccomplished, or if they did have an achievement, she diminishes that with a matter-of-fact remark that needn’t been said. For this, the film is a comedy rather than a tragedy.
Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is an old business partner of Woody’s who comes looking for some money when it leaks, erroneously, that he has won a million dollars. Later in the film, Keach morphs into a thorn who demands his money, at the price of knocking Woody down another peg, if there were any pegs left. Forte gives a calm and collected performance that has more emotion than anyone else in the film, aside from Squibb, but with fewer lines compared to screen time. This is the Forte of “Saturday Night Live” in a new element, and it’s a performance worth admiring.
Knowing full well from the start of the film there is no prize, yet making the trip, Woody is informed he has won nothing, but is given a free hat that simply reads “Prize Winner” – a hat worthy of Judah Friedlander. When he comes to the reality that he is going back to Billings without a prize, Forte gives his father consolation, and not exactly cheesy or with a hug or affection. Rather, he gives a simple, kind gesture to help his father save face among those in his hometown of Hawthorne who view him as the joke he was when he was growing up in town. With the journey over, the prize won and pride restored to a degree, Dern strolls the main street of his hometown, giving a last look to those who counted him down and out. Let’s hope this isn’t the last look we get from the great Bruce Dern.