In Alexander Payne’s Academy Award-nominated black-and-white drama, we see the story of a parent with unfulfilled dreams who has damaged adult children who care deeply but are also deeply wounded. A companion piece to “August: Osage County” (see my review January 29, 2014).
The film opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in the performance of his career!) wandering the streets of Billings, Montana. Woody’s son, David (Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame) is called by the police to pick up his septuagenarian father who wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he believes he has won. The all-too-common mail scam seems to be discounted by Woody who naively believes his luck has changed. Kate (the scene-stealing June Squibb) berates her husband as a fool for insisting on collecting the money. David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo), a local news anchor, discuss putting Woody in a retirement home, hinting of dementia or senility. David reluctantly decides to drive his father to Lincoln, much to Kate’s and his brother’s dismay. Perhaps he can unlock some of the secrets of his father’s past and grow closer to him on the road.
“Nebraska” is stark and lonely: an austere and bleak landscape of place and mind, where life doesn’t seem to change and dreams remain unfulfilled. Family dynamics locked into roles of self-deception echo and evoke “August”, this time between father and sons, not mother and daughters.
The brutally frank portrayal of aging and unhealed wounds are at times comical and always heart-breaking. Forte, best known as a zany comic actor, makes an impressively restrained dramatic debut as a man who longs to connect yet is reflexively depressed. Odenkirk, as Ross, evolves in surprising and sympathetic ways as a witness to both his brother and father’s decline.
Ultimately, however, this is Bruce Dern’s film. His energy is still there, only now beneath the surface: dissipated, his rage turned inward, his hearing aid turned up a little to hear the voices inside his own head.