The black-and-white of Alexander Payne's masterful film "Nebraska" seems to depict a forgotten, bygone version of the Upper Midwest, with endless prairies, open skies and dying towns. Only the occasional glance at a contemporary object, like a digital cable remote control or a flat-screen TV, gives the game away. The absence of color adds a touch of dignity to a story of a man who is clinging to one last, foolish hope to reclaim his honor as a man and as a father.
We meet Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a retired auto mechanic who may be approaching senility, walking purposefully along the side of a highway, bent into the bitter wind. He's trying to get from his home in Billings, Mont. to Lincoln, Neb. to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he believes he's won. Of course, it's a phony sales pitch, but Woody refuses to listen. His younger son David (Will Forte), an electronics salesman at a big box store who's recently split from his girlfriend, decides to drive him to Lincoln.
What begins as an attempt by David to reconnect with his father turns into a historic odyssey, taking the Grant clan back to their roots in the tiny town of Hawthorne, Neb., where old hurts and obligations are unearthed, rivalries rekindled and the origins of Woody's abiding sense of indifference blended with regret are discovered.
Mr. Payne has an affection for marginalized men that makes "Nebraska" more of a bittersweet comedy than a depressing dive into a heartland town in decline. Yet it's no accident that the name Woody Grant is an inversion of Grant Wood, the painter of the iconic "American Gothic." Like the subjects of the famous painting, Woody is tight-lipped, inclined toward pride, but struggling. The few words Woody does share manage to convey his contempt for his children or a feeble but ever-present desire to be liked and admired by men his own age.
The movie doesn't soft-pedal the hardship and depopulation that afflicts small towns like Hawthorne. Most of the businesses on main street are boarded up, few of the families are farming their own land, and the life of the town seems to center on a couple of taverns. When news of Woody's good fortune reaches the locals, he's cheered as a hero — a part Woody is eager to play. His relatives and an old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), want to take advantage of the presumed windfall to collect on some old debts.
Mr. Dern is magnificent as the brooding Woody, conveying sudden mood swings with flashes of wrath alternating with looks of confusion, frustration, and passivity. He captures the physicality of a man wracked by age, alcohol abuse and possibly dementia. June Squibb is wonderful and funny as Woody's wife Kate, a profane firecracker who acts as the unofficial historian of the family, remembering all of their connections to the people of Hawthorne, and every slight and insult they delivered or endured.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael photographs the Nebraska landscape and sky with artfulness and care. These lingering shots serve as a kind of connective tissue for the story, stitching together disparate scenes as the story slowly develops. The set dressers also are worth mentioning for the attention given to the small details of the interiors of homes, especially the abandoned farmhouse of Woody's youth. These picturesque skies and haunting details imbue "Nebraska" with a sense of the eternal that lends significance to Woody's quest, binding it up with the struggles of his family, his town and his part of the country.
CREDITS: Directed by Alexander Payne; screenplay by Bob Nelson
RATING: R for language
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS