When it comes to depicting the lonely, the forlorn, the wounded, the worn, there are few who do it as well as Payne. “Nebraska” is no exception.
The film is about a doddering, alcoholic old man resolute in his determination to travel from Montana to Nebraska in order to claim the million dollars a sweepstakes letter has informed him he’s won. Woody (Bruce Dern) doesn’t care if he has to walk, he will not be daunted in his quest to claim this alleged prize.
Tired of seeing his deteriorating father wander out on his own and desperate to find a way to reconnect with him, David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody to Nebraska, scam prize or not. If nothing else, it’ll get the two of them away from, Kate, his harpy of a mother (played with scene-stealing moxie by June Squibb).
The heart of “Nebraska” is found not in the destination but the journey, as David does his best to care for the man who never seemed to care too much for him, slowly learning some of the darker spots of Woody’s past (that explain, though never excuse, his alcoholism), all while still finding a reason to stand up for and love his ailing father.
Forte, known exclusively as a comedic actor until now, finds a perfect balance of frustration, exhaustion, disappointment, anger and love as David desperately attempts to both keep his father together and convince him of the foolishness of this whole affair. It’s strong work and I’m eager to see what other kind of dramatic work other directors can pull from him.
Although, I suppose in some ways it is about the destination. Woody’s quest may be a quixotic one, but he’s not really in it for the money.
When pressed about what he’ll do when he gets his hands on the dough (a question that never stops being thrown at him), his only burning desires are for a brand new truck and an air compressor to replace the one that his friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) stole from him years ago. A million bucks for two (relatively) meager things?
No, what Woody really wants is to be remembered. He wants to leave something behind that’s more than just a grave marker.
One of the best scenes in the film takes place when Woody, David, Kate and David’s older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) visit Woody’s childhood home. It’s a near-dilapidated wreck (a fact Kate seems all too eager to point out), but Woody walks through it as though it were hallowed ground. “My father built this,” he mumbles with equal parts reverence and sadness. Woody doesn’t care about being a millionaire. He cares that he’s fading away and that there’ll be nothing left to prove he was here, that he made any kind of memorable mark. He may have been an alcoholic, inattentive father, but he wanted to leave something to his sons so that they would have a reason to fondly remember him.
True, he also wants to be able to drive through downtown Hawthorne in a shiny new truck and validate the praise and recognition and envy that’s sprung up in the wake of the (rapidly spreading) news of his “win,” but it still comes down to the fact that Woody has little left in his life other than regrets.
None of this would work were it not for the outstanding work done by Bruce Dern. With two small gestures at the opening of the film, Dern manages to communicate so much about his state of mind, who he is and how little he seems to care about anything other than his quest. There’s something immediately endearing and yet saddening in his portrayal of Woody, and I can’t really imagine anyone else inhabiting this character so fully. It’s a very human, very nuanced performance and I won’t be the least bit surprised to see the Academy send him home with some Oscar gold for it.
This was just a wonderful film. A very small, human film that speaks to the inherent fear that almost everyone can identify with. Notions of legacy and lasting memory are things that everyone at some point thinks about, regardless of who they are or where they’ve been. It’s a sweet, simple film that left me smiling as I walked out of the theater.
As a whole it’s not a film that reaches the grander heights of many of the other Best Picture nominees, but it also doesn’t aspire for them. Payne is interested in telling an intimate, human story and on that front he succeeds marvelously.