Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, and Bob Odenkirk
Available to stream on Netflix, Epix, and Amazon Prime Instant Video
Nebraska contains scenes that deal with memories, regrets, and growing old. But it is not about any of these things. It is instead simply the portrait of a man. When we first meet Woody Grant, we see him as a dilapidated old coot on the verge of dementia. You see, Woody has received a letter from a magazine company informing him that he’s won a million dollars. All he needs to do to collect it is bring his letter to the offices of the marketing company in Lincoln, Nebraska. We know it’s a scam, all the other characters know it’s a scam, but Woody really wants that money to buy a new truck. The problem is that he lives in Billings, Montana. So he does what we would expect an old, crazy person to do–he starts walking. Fortunately, his son David picks him up and brings him home. This father-son relationship will be the basis for the entire movie.
When they arrive at home, we meet the most lovable character of the story, Woody’s wife Kate, played in all her vulgar glory by the brilliant June Squibb. She berates Woody endlessly for his stupidity, and threatens to send him to a care home. At this point we think we have this family figured out. Not so. The remaining hour and a half of the film is filled with surprises that reveal an unforeseen depth in Woody’s character.
David, feeling stagnant and unfulfilled in Billings, eventually decides to drive his father to Lincoln. At first, we’re not sure if this is to shut him up or because David genuinely wants a father-son experience. Doesn’t matter. What ensues is an Odyssey of sorts, only the adventure is constantly halted by Woody’s incompetence and idiotic choices. Along the way, they meet Woody’s family, his old friends, and even some enemies.
The bulk of the story takes place in Woody and Kate’s old stomping grounds, a small town in central Nebraska called Hawthorne. It’s the kind of town where everybody knows everybody, and more importantly everybody has some kind of dirt or gossip on everybody. It soon becomes “known” that Woody has come into money, and soon everybody from his past is seeing green.
Woody becomes a kind of local celebrity and that gives the story leave to explore his past, his old flames, and his ancient feuds. And slowly, we get a feel for the real Woody. The man we pictured as a one-dimensional grump is really a complex, interesting, and even good person. I really enjoyed this kind of reverse-reveal character development. It provides an even greater depth to an already intriguing family dynamic. It also provides a vehicle for reconciliation and understanding between Woody and his sons. Though the tone of Nebraska is often melancholic, there is a charm that breaks through, and ultimately it is a story about a man, his family, and the legacy he wants to leave.