Woody Grant is approaching the end of his life with nothing to show for it. He's an old alcoholic who married young, settled down, had kids and spent the rest of his time sitting on his heels, like many millions of others. But now that he's there, that he can practically see the end staring him in the face, he wants a win of some kind. A definite win. Don't we all?
Alexander Payne's Nebraska is a bleak but very moving look at the life of an old man searching for his dignity, and the lives he's surrounded by in the desolate landscapes of a stranded middle America. Bruce Dern plays Woody, who drifts in and out of awareness most of the time, but now seems to be very aware of the possibility of his having won $1 million in a Mega Sweepstakes letter he got in the mail. It's the oldest scam in the book of course, as his son Dave tells him, but for him, it's a fantasy that he's desperate to hold onto, to make real, to get him his last win. Dave (Will Forte in an affecting performance a million miles away from Saturday Night Live), puts up with it, even though the old man has never given him anything and wasted much of his life away drinking, and he volunteers to take him to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his "prize." Along the way we get something in the great tradition of an American road movie, as the sweeping plains of the midwest pass by in beautiful black and white photography that enhances the loneliness, isolation and the resigned misery of its inhabitants. Payne gives us a similar kind of movie to 1971's The Last Picture Show, which also took a hardened, bleak look at an abandoned part of the country.
The residents of Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska may be miserable, but they don't seem to know it, as most have never known anything else. Woody's no different from his old friends and family members in that regard, and never verbally expresses the regrets and despair he's now feeling- for that we have to look behind Dern's soulful eyes and grizzled face, and it's a marvelous performance from him because I saw every bit of those conflicting emotions, despite the internal nature of the role. You feel for this guy, even as you piece together his history of neglecting his family, drinking, and being cuckolded- he's a tired old man now and who doesn't know someone in a similar position? June Squibb is Woody's wife Kate, a tough talking, foul mouthed old broad, who may be a pain to take day and day out, but is a jewel to have around when you need her, as she's the one who tells the plain, blunt truths about the miserable folks they both know. Woody and Kate's relatives may be practically dulled into submission by their lives, but boy do the knives come out when they think Woody's actually won something. This image of the small towns of middle America is far from the optimistic view of Frank Capra, but it feels realer, as many of these folks are sadly all too recognizable. Payne's from Nebraska and lives there still, and the sense of authenticity that is portrayed in this film is striking.
Getting to know his neighbors makes Woody's small triumph at the end of our journey with him feel like a celebration of the highest order, and this portrait of a part of America that is rarely explored on screen makes it a highly personal and emotional film that already feels like a classic, at least to me. Woody's triumph is also Payne's, and this movie will stand the test of time to represent what a certain generation felt like as the curtain came down on their time spent on this earth.
* * * 1/2