In director Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an addled, small-town codger—and, he believes, a millionaire. In the opening scenes he walks with a slow, bent determination along the roads and highways of Billings, Montana. He’s received a publisher’s sweepstakes letter, which he’s taken at face value, and he’s on his way to the contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the $1 million he assumes is waiting for him. Since his wife, Kate (Jane Squibb), has refused to drive him, he’s walking. Eventually a policeman spots him. “Where are you coming from?” he asks, concerned. This is the question of the movie.
This is a road movie, but it’s about the road Woody’s already traveled more than any destination. It’s about origins. Where did this strange, apparently disoriented man come from? Woody’s son, David (Will Forte), retrieves his father from the police station and, after failing to convince the old man that the letter is a scam, he agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska himself. Geographically, this is where Woody came from, specifically the small Nebraska farm town where he and David stop along the way to Lincoln. Once there, the story explores another idea of origin, the emotional one—or in other words, family. There are Woody’s brothers and their wives, cousins and nephews, and then the wider family common to small towns, the friends and neighbors, girlfriends and bartenders who can be just as vital to a person’s development, for better or worse. For David, who has all the marks of an alcoholic caretaker and the recognizable tone of a man who’s spent too much time trying to talk sense to people who can’t understand it, it’s a first opportunity to know his taciturn and detached father, a man who “never gave a shit about either of us,” according to his brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Slowly, he begins to understand that there are reasons for the person his father became.
Nebraska works. As David and Woody, along with various other members of the family, revisit the sites of Woody’s youth and the family’s past, it explores the idea of family—as a thing that both hinders and empowers, ruins us and saves us—and it does so with sensitivity and insight. In simple scenes of the family watching TV together, in shots of the crumbling storefronts and deserted downtowns of Montana and Nebraska, in the faces of the characters, something happens: Payne captures the pointlessness and necessity of family, gray Sunday afternoons at home in silence, the hopelessness of communication, the meaninglessness of finding meaning, the open wound of a hometown.
Nebraska works because of Dern. He hasn’t always been a subtle actor, but this performance is a study in nuance. If the Payne formula is to surround a single, sympathetic character with buffoons and pitiable jackasses, then his movies are only as good as those central performances. Dern is perfection. He sneaks up on you. His subtleties and gestures, his turns of phrase, his walk, even his silences, accrue. They add up to something that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Namely, they ask and eventually answer the movie’s central and most compelling question of origin: What is the origin not of Woody, but of his ailment. How did he get the way he is?
Because for a main character, Woody seems not only mentally disconnected, but static. He often doesn’t know he’s being spoken to, he’s liable to say anything that comes to mind with no sense of consequence, and he stubbornly and obliviously operates according only to his own view of the world. It’s assumed that he’s beyond reaching, and so those around him are left to wonder how he got that way. Is it the result of a lifetime of drinking? The trauma of his service in the Korean War? Alzheimer’s? Dern makes Woody a great deal more than he might otherwise have been. He makes him human and real, a guy you might not want to hang out with, but someone you understand.
But Nebraska almost doesn’t work. It’s almost undone. You could argue that everything good in it is because of Dern. You could argue that even its great qualities, even those beautifully achieved feelings, come across only because Dern’s presence lifts the entire movie, help it overcome its many missteps. Because this is Payne we’re talking about. His reputation for taking an ugly pleasure in ridiculing his own characters is well-earned, and despite his restraint here, it’s still on display. You can’t teach an old bully new tricks. Some directors stand beside their characters, and some step into the shadows so their characters speak for themselves; Payne isn’t with his characters at all. He sits next to you, chuckling wryly and whispering, “Thank God we’re not those assholes, right?”
Sitting around the living room, Woody and his family—most of whom are all but licking their chops at the thought of Woody’s supposed new fortune—watch TV, barely able to utter a word to each other. It feels true, it feels the way those family reunions feel, people bound together by nothing but loss and football. But that isn’t how Payne means it. He holds the camera on them. It’s a cheap joke. We’re meant to laugh at the aging, slack-jawed Midwesterners. Later, there’s a scene in a cemetery, where Kate tells David old family stories, literally laughing over the graves of Woody’s dead relatives; we’re supposed to be amused by an old woman making fun of cancer victims and talking about sex; then she finishes by lifting her skirt and flashing the grave of an old admirer. “See what you could have had!” she cackles. Because Payne chooses cheap jokes over insight, characters like Kate often barely make coherent sense.
And what’s the common thread here? Intimacy and vulnerability: a family in the home, mourners at a graveside, a depressed heartland town. This is what Payne likes to put on display—Matthew Broderick washing his ass in Election, Kathy Bates in the hot tub in About Schmidt—because these are the softest, most defenseless points. And watching a story like that gives a feeling of smallness. There’s nothing wrong with working on a small scale, of course, and small can be a gateway to the largest ideas and emotions imaginable. But Payne’s smallness is small. His movies are like looking at toy towns through a keyhole. Scratch at his humor and superficial pathos, and Payne is the most pitiless filmmaker since Otto Preminger, but with none of the authority.
And yet, Nebraska works. It’s undeniable. Dern plumbs this character so expertly, with such minimalist precision, that the experience of watching it is elevated far beyond the houses and barns and flat, bleak, black-and-white landscapes of the heartland. Payne can show us where Woody came from, but Dern makes it clear that no matter how inert Woody seems, not matter how incapable he may be of connection, there’s a man in there. Revisiting his hometown, and coming to realize that his prize was no prize at all, has changed something in him. In short, Dern shows Woody’s heart without pity or pleading or apology, and in a way that completely surprises both the audience and the characters around him.
When David and Woody finally get to the prize headquarters and Woody learns that no, he hasn’t won $1 million, the woman working there asks, “Does your father have Alzheimer’s?” And David, in response, realizes, right along with us, the true origin of his father’s problem. “No,” he says. “He just believes stuff people tell him.” The line hits with equal parts sadness and relief. Yes. This is Woody. An innocent man in a duplicitous world. The line feels like the movie’s climax because Dern made it feel that way. Is it fair to parse the film this way, to blame Payne for its faults and give Dern credit for its successes? I don’t know. Maybe it’s petty. If nothing else, at least Alexander Payne got out of the way long enough to let Dern make it something close to great.