A film like Nebraska isn’t the type of film that would normally draw a huge crowd but those lucky enough to see it will be quite surprised by it.
The movie begins with Woody Grant walking past the city limits of Billings, Montana and being stopped by the police. Why? He’s making his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1,000,000 prize he believes he’s won in a sweepstakes. Son David and wife Kate let him know it’s a trick to get him to buy magazines. Woody is not a sharp tool. He easily gets injured and loses simple things like his dentures during walks. In fact David and his brother Ross have talked of putting him in a retirement home. Nevertheless he insists he’s won and he’s determined to collect it. David makes a big decision. He decides to take his father to Lincoln, Nebraska to find out for himself and get it over with. He doesn’t have much to lose. He has a solid job and his girlfriend recently left him because he wouldn’t marry her.
Before hitting Lincoln, Woody’s able to have his father stay at his brother Ray and Aunt Martha’s house in the nearby Nebraska town of Hawthorne for a couple of nights before. David goes for the visit and meets family he hasn’t seen in a long time. His mother joins up and soon the family learns of the people they grew up with and the places they visited. Some information about people coming out of Kate’s lips is too much for David to handle. They even visit the old farmhouse Woody spent his childhood in. It’s also where David learns of Woody’s drinking problem and how it kept him from being a successful farmer over in Hawthorne.
Ross joins up the next day leaving the wife and kids at home. Soon Woody tells everyone–family and friends at the bar– that he’s won a $1,000,000 prize. Everyone believes it and soon he becomes a celebrity even catching the attention of the local newspaper. To add to the problem, David and Kate insists to everyone he won nothing but no one believes them. Making things worse, David hears from family members and the town big man Ed Pegram how they lost money to Woody and they now want it back. David finds it hard to defend his father since the people know more about him, especially Ed as he has a menacing character. June however is able to defend Woody to the family claiming they owe him instead. She even reveals that Ed actually stole a compressor from Woody.
It’s not until an attempted robbery from the two nephews that the truth is revealed to the family and to the townspeople as Ed Pegram reads the letter mockingly to the bar crowd. Even though Woody is humiliated, David gives Ed something he’ll never forget. It’s after that incident David drives Woody to Lincoln to find out the truth. Even though Woody finds out the truth, the movie ends on a positive note and gives one the impression Woody leaves town as a winner as he drives by and his true friends from that town are revealed.
I know that Alexander Payne has done movies where a person’s struggle is depicted alongside the geography or the scenery of where the incident is taking place. This is something else. This is a movie where one gets a feel of the town or even a feel of the protagonist’s past life as the story is taking place. It’s interesting as Woody returns to the town of his upbringing how people make him feel welcome and even consider him a hero after hearing of his ‘prize.’ Also as interesting how these people like past friends and family try to get a piece of the action. They even know of his past to make up things where Woody owes them. You’ll soon learn that maybe Woody isn’t even part of the town or even part of the family. You’d probably understand why Woody moved to Billings. Because the town was too nasty to him. I think that’s why the film was done in black and white, to show the one-sidedness of coming from a small town. Even seeing how Aunt Martha knocks Woody’s past drinking while taking the criminal acts of her sons Cole and Bart with a grain of salt makes you wonder.
This movie is another accomplishment of Alexander Payne. I’ve never once been disappointed by him. This is another good one as it was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. I know I talk a lot of Payne’s films being a man’s personal trial in the middle of their geography. Payne does it again but he doesn’t just simply show the geography of a small Nebraska town here. He gives a feel for it. Sometimes he can make one feel like a part of the family or a part of the town in Nebraska. I believe that was the best quality of the movie. Also you could say this film is a bit of a ‘homecoming’ for Payne. About Schmidt was the last movie he did with it set in Nebraska, albeit temporarily in Omaha. He’s gone from the Rocky Mountain valleys in About Schmidt to California’s wine country in Sideways to Hawaii in The Descendants to returning back to Nebraska here. Seems right since he is Omaha-born and raised. Also excellent is the script from South Dakota-born writer Bob Nelson. This is his first script for a feature-length film and he does an excellent job. Being born in South Dakota, I think Nelson intends for Hawthorne, Nebraska to appear like your typical small town.
Sure director Payne and writer Nelson get kudos but the story wouldn’t be without the fine acting performances. Bruce Dern was excellent playing an aging man who’s slow on wits and is easily prey to other people. He succeeds in winning feelings from the audience. It’s no wonder the performance won Best Actor in Cannes. Will Forte was also excellent in playing the son who is both caught in the frustration of the lie everyone including his father believes and starts to wonder if he really knows his father. You can see it in his face as it appears the Hawthorners appear to know more about Woody than David. June Squibb was also great as the mother. Some of you may recognize her as Warren Schmidt’s wife in About Schmidt. Here she was quite the scene stealer as the mother who had quite an outlandish mouth but was also tough as nails with those who tried to bully woody into paying. At first you think Kate’s a bad wife for Woody but then you learn she’s the best woman for him.
Even though Bruce, June and Will were the standout performances of the movie, there were other good performances too. Stacy Keach also delivered a great performance as Ed Pegram, the town’s head honcho. His scene-stealing performance kind of reminds of you of a lot of Texas cowboys that act like big shots. Makes you feel that punch in the face David gave him was well-deserved. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray were also great as the nephews who’d do anything to get a piece of the action. Actually the film had an excellent ensemble and an excellent set of characters of family and townspeople. It’s a shame they weren’t nominated for the SAG award for Best Movie Ensemble. In addition there was great cinematography from Phedon Papamichael and good music from Mark Orton.
Nebraska is an excellent film for those that want to get off the beaten path. It starts off with a plot that normally would make for a ridiculous movie but gives you an accomplishment in the end.