THE SCENES OF the bleak, cloudy countryside we see of Nebraska in Alexander Payne’s marvelous, eponymous, film are images of emptiness, of wide open farmlands with still, unmoving cattle and un-working farm machinery, of mute silences and deep loneliness. This is the mind of its stubborn, obsessive, barely functioning, unfocused protagonist, Woody Grant (an outstanding Bruce Dern).
The deluded Woody is deceived into believing he’s won a million dollars which he needs to collect in person in Lincoln, Nebraska. And so, motivated by his desire to use the money for a new truck and an air compressor (neither of which he has any need for), he sets out on foot to walk the eight hundred or so miles from his house in Billings, Montana. It’s his long walk for freedom; his, quixotic, quest to regain some semblance of self-respect, recognition and, as his faculties fail, dignity.
He’s also escaping his nagging, cantankerous, hectoring wife, Kate (June Squibb, better known for her appearances in “The Young And The Restless”) – a woman who has a nasty word to say about just about everyone she knows. Reluctantly, and also seeking escape from his own failed relationship and dead-end job, his son David (Will Forte, mainly from “SNL” and “Conan”) agrees to humor the old man and drive him to Lincoln. To mother and the successful brother, Ross (Robert Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad”), this is just a dumb trip that’s a simple waste of time and money. It’s a trip that takes them via Woody’s brother, Uncle Ray, still living -with his family- in the small, crumbling town that Woody grew up and worked in fourty years before.
This is a town deserted by the young, where only the old timers (and Uncle Ray’s two overweight imbecilic sons) remain, creaking with memories and resentments, and narcotized by TV. Payne is unsentimental and unsparing about the old timers. There’s nothing charming and appealing about these country folk. They’re a bunch of judgmental, greedy hypocrites, who see in Woody’s quest, the potential for riches, diversion and a proximity to celebrity.
Nebraska is, in its emptiness, more than Woody’s mental map. Perhaps, Payne suggests it’s also the moral map of the US.
Bruce Dern pulls off a remarkable feat in his portrayal of Woody. His entire script probably covers no more than a few paragraphs. But we’re presented with a fully rounded, deeply flawed person who veers from semi catatonia to blinding and sarcastic clarity, from shuffling, physical frailty to steely determination, all with mere glances and mumbles.
As the road trip unfolds, and Payne peels away into the dark side of rural Americana, he also slowly unveils, through flashes of illumination, Woody’s character and his past. And, along with his son, we get to know and gradually empathize with this befuddled drunk. For there is a basic honesty, an innocence and guilelessness to Woody that contrasts markedly with the relentless nastiness and dishonesty of his old hometown; indeed of the cause for the trip in the first place – that spurious ‘winning’ con.
It is through Woody’s basic honesty that the director balances his cynicism (with the society and its mores) with a sense of optimism: as Woody’s immediate family are forced to close ranks against the overt and covert aggression of the small town, there is a rekindling of affection and love between the brothers (childishly stealing what they thought was the father’s long stolen air compressor) and between the long estranged parents. It’s as though, despite everything, that spark of decency we see in Woody and his son is enough to rekindle something positive, something good amidst all the bad.
The mood of “Nebraska” is a lot more somber than Payne’s well-known recent productions: “The Descendants”, “Sideways” and “About Schmidt”. There is less of the witty satire that informed these three; his comic eye is less funny, more biting. But, as clear-sighted as ever.