Have you ever thought of Nebraska as Oz? Woody Grant, played by an understated, unforgettable Bruce Dern, sure as hell has. Old Woody got one of those magazine scams in the mail claiming he’s bagged a million bucks. “It says I won,” growls Woody, with an unshakable faith in what he sees in print. All he needs to do is leave his home in Billings, Montana, and head off to the prize office in Lincoln, Nebraska.
From that outline, director Alexander Payne and first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson sculpt a story of the American character on the lost frontiers of trust and shame. Nebraska aims to investigate how those qualities went missing. And not just in the Midwest. Of the Omaha-born Payne’s six films, four (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska) were shot in his home state. But two that weren’t, Sideways and The Descendants, also use small details to reach a larger truth.
Is Nebraska a comedy or a drama? Like life, it’s both. Payne takes his time. Deal with it. This is a movie to bring home and live with, to kick around in your head after it hits you in the heart. It’s damn near perfect, starting with the acting. Dern, 77, has specialized in instability and menace. He killed John Wayne in The Cowboys, stuck it to Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, terrorized the Super Bowl in Black Sunday and got an Oscar nomination for playing a traumatized Vietnam vet in Coming Home. But Dern’s laser focus is nowhere to be seen in Nebraska. Woody’s eyes are blurred from drinking, his spirit sapped by broken dreams. His wife, Kate (the priceless June Squibb), calls him a damn fool for chasing a bogus jackpot. Squibb should have an Oscar in her reach; she’s that bruisingly funny and true. But sorrow seeps in. Woody’s TV newsman son, Ross (Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk), wants to put the old man in a home. It’s son David (Will Forte), a stereo salesman, who joins daddy Don Quixote on his quest for a slice of dignity and maybe a new truck.
And so begins Woody’s road odyssey, shot by the gifted Phedon Papamichael in glorious widescreen black and white and scored by Mark Orton with a fiddler’s ear for the sharp and the tender. Along the way, Woody meets up with greedy relatives (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), the girl that got away (Angela McEwan) and an old enemy (Stacy Keach). But mostly, father and son learn about each other. Forte, of SNL and MacGruber, is revelatory, nailing every nuance in a complex role. And just try to take your eyes off Dern. In his finest two hours onscreen, he gives a performance worth cheering. There’s not an ounce of bullshit in it. Same goes for the movie.