The first time we meet Woody (Bruce Dern) he is walking by the side of a Montana highway in what appears to be very cold weather. He has both a determined gait and look to him but is stopped by a police officer on a highway overpass. We next meet David (Will Forte) who arrives at the police station to pick his father up. We learn that Woody is in possession of a letter that says he may have won a million dollars. Woody is convinced that he has won and is dead set on going to Nebraska to collect his winnings.
Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb) is being driven crazy by Woody’s determined antics and his other son, Ross (Bob Odenkrik), has gone as far as to take key parts from Woody’s truck so that the old man won’t drive his way to Nebraska. David is in a dead end job as a home electronics salesman, has broken up with his longtime girlfriend, who tells him to make up his mind about anything, and has to keep leaving his job to go look for his wandering father. After another attempt by Woody at walking to Nebraska, David decides that he will drive his father to claim what he knows will not be a million dollars.
So starts a very funny, touching road trip movie from director Alexander Payne. Payne, who brought us last year’s “The Descendants”, as well as “Sideways” in 2004, “About Schmidt” (2002) and “Election” (1999). Payne has a nice comedic touch to make something out almost nothing and scene after scene in this film demonstrates that talent. The film is shot in black and white, by the director of photography Phedon Papamichael, which perfectly suits the landscape and the people who inhabit it. The camera seems to be centered for each shot, rarely moving, much like the people in the film. This is a film about taking a trip but the characters don’t seem to be going very far.
Bruce Dern gives a performance of a lifetime as the moody, alcoholic Woody. Dern never lets us really see what Woody is thinking, using mostly grunts and one word sentences to make his point. At times, it seems as though dementia has a hold of Woody but then there are a few places in the film, where we see that there is more to Woody than meets the eye and that credit goes to Dern’s performance of the man.
Will Forte does an excellent job as David, a man who is trying as hard as he can to reconnect to his father. It is very evident in the early parts of the film that Woody and David’s relationship is strained, but he is willing to go on the road trip in an effort to understand who his father is as a person. Forte almost has to be the straight man in the film, reacting to David’s parents antics.
The standout supporting cast is incredible in this film. June Squibb is marvelous as the opinionated wife of Woody. She gets the best lines of the film as Kate tends to speak very frankly about anything and anyone. Squibb milks the part for everything it’s got, and though she doesn’t have as many scenes as Dern, her performance is equally compelling and just as memorable. Other cast members, such as Stacy Keach, who plays a blustery rival of Woody’s and Bob Odenkrik, who plays the more successful brother of David, are perfect in their roles. Most of the supporting cast, including Rance Howard, who plays Woody’s brother, look as if they live and work on the farm, that’s how comfortable they look and feel in this film.
This is a film about family in the heartland of America and adult children who try to understand better who their parents are. It’s a wonderful film that while touching and sometimes a little sad, ultimately is moving and at times quite funny. In other words, another brilliant film from Alexander Payne and my favorite film from this year’s Austin Film Festival.
“Nebraska” opens today in Atlanta at the UA Tara Cinemas 4