The poster for Nebraska shows the profile of Woody Grant, the boozy paterfamilias of Alexander Payne’s newest film, lit up like a crescent moon. He looks confused, maybe crazy. His white wispy hair is reminiscent of Einstein and the winter torn terrain of the midwest farmland filmed in crisp black and white. In the movie Woody is frequently paired with this landscape, a pattern begun in the poster with “Nebraska” nestled inside his cranium.
Alexander Payne, who is perhaps best known for moving the wine industry with his 2004 film Sideways, is well practiced in the Midwestern art of stoic disappointment. A son of the cornhusker state, Payne uses their quiet turmoil even when his films are set California and Hawaii as was Sideways and The Descendants, respectively.
There’s some poor acting, accentuated by stilted exposition early on, but after the groundwork is laid the characters tilt at each other in grand Quixotic fashion. Bruce Dern as Woody Grant is wonderful with just the right amount of curmudgeonliness and gruff, if distant, affection. Packed between the wry chuckles are many laugh out loud moments, most of them by Woody’s spitfire wife Kate.
The movie begins with Woody Grant, whose name is no doubt a play on the American Gothic painter Grant Wood, hobbling down the side of the road, bent against the winter Montana wind. He is corralled by a sheriff and his son David comes to the precinct to pick him up. From there we are introduced to his wife, played perfectly by June Squibb. She bursts out of the house and unleashes all manner of abuse on Woody, who, with a deftness well-practices, bends into her scorn as heedless as Wood does the cold.
The reason for Woody’s trek is that no one will take him to pick up the one million dollars from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing he’s “won”. He’s so resolute that David, played demurely by Will Forte, decides to take him all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska. What follows is not so much a road movie as an impromptu reunion, a half-assed intervention, and, above all, an attempt by a son to restart the wrecked relationship with his father. This seems to be the last event between the father and his family before shuffling him off to an old folks home.
Woody, by all accounts, was no good as a father, no good as a husband and only good to friends and extended family as his money allowed. This partly explains why the prize is important, for he is at the end of his life and has nothing to pass on to his sons, but more than that he is trying to recapture his dignity, thrown away by his own failures. When he arrives at his hometown of Hawthorne and the money hits the rumor mill, all kinds come out to gladhand him. David manages the situation as best he can, but Woody comes alive in the attention. A deeper understanding of his father emerges. David asks how he and his mother were married and what follows is the sort of humor endemic throughout the film:
David: How did you and Mom end up getting together?
Woody: She wanted to.
David: You didn’t?
Woody:I figured what the hell.
David: Were you ever sorry you married?
Woody: All the time. [He takes a sip of beer] It could have been worse.
David: You must have been in love. At least at first.
Woody: Never came up.
He seems as passive as he’s always been, but this response is so mysterious in his current unassailable course of action. Why is the money so important? he is asked and Woody is hardly able to answer. The picture of Woody slowly shifts as Kate arrives and tells her side of their romance. By her account, every man in the county was after her. While it is left unsaid, we get the idea that Woody was quite a guy. It is clear that David’s view of his father shifts, recognizing that the flawed man before him was not always under the thumb of the world. The movie concludes with an act of supererogation on David’s part and the audience is left to speculate whether the lessons learned will transform the family.
Payne’s characters dance so nearly to parody that many think Alexander Payne is having a bit of fun at the cost of his stomping grounds. This is nothing new. Grant Wood faced the same sort of accusations over his American Gothic. Imitation is an element of honor as in mockery, but Payne is affectionate even when he is biting and the movie is a sort of mystery, aptly noir, calling the audience to find, as David eventually does, what makes Woody Grant worthy of the tale.