Directed by Alexander Payne
The old man walks as though his torso belongs to someone else. Body and mind seem tenuously coordinated at best. Sheer willpower—another term for stubbornness—goads him as he traverses the road leading out of Billings, Montana. His destination is Lincoln, Nebraska, which even a cursory glance at a map will tell you is a hell of a ways. His name is Woody (Bruce Dern), and he appears touched by dementia, its creeping inwardness a blessing, perhaps, for a man who never said much and habitually took refuge in alcohol. Dementia is the token explanation for Woody’s insistence on travelling to Nebraska to collect what he claims is an enormous windfall, but for the rest of us is obviously a Publisher’s Clearing House-type scam. Only later in Nebraska does Woody’s son, David (Will Forte), suggest that dad “just needs something to live for.”
David needs something, too—to escape the deadening routine of selling stereos and the recent failure of his relationship. So David decides to drive Woody to Lincoln, though they wind up spending most of their time in the fictional town of Hawthorne, where Woody grew up. Many who remain there still remember Woody from the old days. The farmhouse in which Woody spent his childhood still stands—if barely. Nebraska is David’s journey. It’s about a son wondering who his father is, or was, about how time seems to render our parents fundamentally unknowable. It’s too late for David to get close to Woody in any meaningful sense, but it isn’t too late for him to learn something about Woody that might help him map a route through his own life.
Alexander Payne’s sixth film is his most fully realized since abandoning satire (Election) for regionally infused character studies (About Schmidt). Phedon Papamichael’s ashen, monochromatic cinematography mirrors both the vintage and fogginess of Woody; it also reflects new gradations of nuance in Payne’s characters and offers nod to certain traditions in American landscape photography. (Nebraska’s stark highways and turnpikes also echo the image on the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name.) Nebraska’s themes are straightforward and its ambitions modest, but the degree to which Payne, working from a script by Bob Nelson, realizes these ambitions make the film richly rewarding both aesthetically and emotionally.
Which is where I should finally address the enigmatic heart of the film. Dern is one of those marginal legends of the New Hollywood of the ’70s. Substantial roles were rare, as was recognition, though Dern did get an Oscar nomination for his Vietnam vet in Coming Home. So much of his work is memorable for being singularly hysterical (that’s a compliment). After a career of going off the rails it’s that much more fascinating and strangely moving to see Dern reach this autumnal triumph, a role that demands he remain remote, ornery but quiet, slowly dissolving into the film’s aluminium siding, wood panelling and flat vistas. Forte compliments Dern with patience and amiability—his David is an easy guy who needs some way to shatter his own passivity. What David discovers by confronting the mystery of his father possesses a value that one usually needs half a life to come to terms with. Thankfully, Nebraska’s made with such heart and craft we needn’t wait that long to sense something special has transpired.