Cast: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte
Director: Alexander Payne
'Nebraska', directed by Alexander Payne, is one of my favorites of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees. It's the kind of movie we don't often see at the cinemas because it's utterly simple, and because it's about real people who're utterly ordinary.
Set in the present day, yet shot in beautiful black and white, the film stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a near-senile ageing alcoholic, living in Billings, Montana. When Woody receives one of those junk-mail flyers claiming he's won a million dollars, he becomes determined to travel 900 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize money. He's not allowed to drive, and his crabby, exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb) won't take him. Instead of arguing, his good-natured grown-up son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him there, seeing it as a chance to mend their fractured relationship. Their road trip across the American Midwest forms the core of this movie.
Striking the perfect balance between sardonic humor and serious drama, Payne delivers a keenly observant film that feels genuine and authentic. 'Nebraska' benefits also from his strong sense of place and his sharp eye for nonprofessional actors who inhabit smaller roles. While the relationship between father and son is at the heart of the movie, Payne finds plenty of other relationships to explore.
Midway through their journey, the pair stops at Woody's old hometown, where they encounter family and friends from the past. There are Woody's many brothers, an old flame, David's greedy cousins, and a former business partner who has designs on the old man's supposed jackpot. The trip also becomes an opportunity for David to learn more about his father.
Like in his previous films - 'The Descendants' and 'Sideways', to name two - Payne finds humour in unlikely places. He also knows exactly how and when to jab at old wounds. What you get as a result is a bittersweet film about the unpredictability of life and the incongruity of family dynamics. 'Nebraska' unfolds leisurely, but the pace is nicely suited to this delicate, melancholic tale that evokes the nostalgia of a time gone by.
For all its strengths, the film is ultimately a showcase of some fine acting. Forte does very well as the permanently sad-eyed David, who wears an expression of frustrated ambition. And as Woody's foul-mouthed wife, Squibb delivers moments of unexpected raunchy humour. But the film belongs to 77-year-old Dern, who delivers a bruisingly honest, riveting performance as the dazed protagonist.
I'm going with four out of five for 'Nebraska'. It's a quietly moving film that'll stay with you. I couldn't shake it off for days.