Hollywood has had a long fascination with exploring the relationship between a son and his neglectful or absent father. Tim Burton went over the top and surreal with 2004’s Big Fish, and Spielberg went back in time with 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Nebraska (2013) is Alexander Payne’s take on the subject, in which he examines a fragile father-son relationship in a beautifully stark, simple, and funny way.
The film focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern): an elderly, grumpy, alcoholic, who believes he’s won a million dollars from a magazine subscription scam. Determined to retrieve his winnings, Woody attempts to walk from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, but is stopped by cops and family members along the way. His son, David (Will Forte), reluctantly agrees to take him to the money in an attempt to keep an eye on him and spend whatever time he has left with his estranged father.
Along the way they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where we meet family members and acquaintances from his past; a chance David sees as a way to learn more about his father: a man of very few words.
Written by Bob Nelson with a score by Mark Orton that would make the Coen brothers jealous, Nebraska is a quiet gem in the midst of epic blockbusters, and it’s in its subtleties where it packs the biggest punches. Every limp in Woody’s walk, every time David has to help his father into a chair, every time the camera pans across the small town and its painfully average surroundings, it paints a portrait of post-recession, small town, USA; full of average people, doing average things, just doing what they can to get through each day. It’s also in those softer moments where the bits of comedic dialogue really break through.
77-year-old Dern already has critics buzzing about talk of a potential Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His disheveled hair, the limp in his walk, and toothless grin he gives at one point, add to the vulnerability of his character; a role that could very easily been one that played to be vilified, he manages to make the crotchety, tell-it-like-it-is, Woody Grant, one of the most endearing characters in recent memory. Not to mention, genuinely funny.
With great supporting roles by Julie Squibb as Woody’s adorably foul-mouthed wife, Bob Odenkirk as his eldest son, and Stacey Keach as his old business partner, the definite breakout of the movie is former SNL star Will Forte. A far cry from his over the top turn in the cult hit, MacGruber, or as Jenna Maroney’s cross-dressing boyfriend in 30 Rock, Forte is trying his hand at more subdued roles as of late, like with his upcoming film, Run and Jump; a movie already garnering praise from the Tribeca and Sundance film festivals. While some may have questioned the casting choice at first, he is great in this movie playing a man not too happy with his own life, and who only wants to spend time with his dad whom he barely knows.
The cinematography is eye-catching as well. It can’t be easy to make a small town in Nebraska or Montana look visually stunning, but the long sweeping, panoramic shots of matted grass hills and mountains are truly amazing to look at, with the black and white adding to its beauty.
Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Election) is a director cementing his place in Hollywood as someone who thrives on character-driven stories about the everyday person, placed against somewhat mundane backdrops. With Nebraska, he’s given his audience a comedy road trip movie minus the clichéd gags, and will no doubt garner himself another Oscar come award season.