Movie review: Bruce Dern delivers poignant portrayal in ‘Nebraska’

Filmmaker Alexander Payne’s quiet marvel “Nebraska” celebrates family and the Heartland while eschewing cloying ideas sometimes associated with such topics.

Though set among salt-of-the-Earth Midwesterners, “Nebraska,” which opens Wednesday, does not promote the sanctity of tradition, home and the American dream. Instead it honors the endurance and complexity of people who have not achieved that dream per se, but lead noteworthy lives anyway.

Woody Grant, the retired mechanic and septuagenarian given cantankerous life by Bruce Dern, might be your grandfather. Or that neighbor to whom you say hello before hurrying inside, trying to avoid a conversation full of awkward silences.

“Nebraska” doesn’t avoid its central codger; it views him as a figure of endless intrigue. The audience will, too, as Dern peels back the disappointments Woody has worn like armor since his Nebraska youth. We share in his adult son’s (Will Forte) discovery of what makes this difficult man tick as the pair travel from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln.

Dern and his shock of white hair captivate visually from film’s start, when we see Woody shambling down the side of a highway. No longer allowed to drive, Woody aims to walk to his home state, where – as he has been informed by a sweepstakes letter – a $1 million prize awaits.

The image is made all the more striking by Phedon Papamichael’s stark, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The black and white evokes Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” which was based on a book by Larry McMurtry, Payne’s kindred spirit in turning the seemingly mundane into the exquisite.

Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) sets expectations high and meets them. An Omaha native directing from a script by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Payne delivers a portrait of small-town America as observant as “Picture Show,” and a poignant/fun road movie that serves as a companion to the similarly toned “Sideways.”

Woody’s son, David, collects him after the cops retrieve him from the highway. A stereo salesman whose longtime girlfriend just left him, David decides to drive his dad to Nebraska. Though he thinks the prize offer is bogus, he sees the trip as a last chance to get to know his father, who was drunk during David’s childhood and now shows signs of dementia.

And as Woody points out, in a rare moment of clarity, it’s not like David has anything better going on. He’s surly toward David because David insists he communicate with him, when he just wants to be quiet, and alone, preferably while also drunk.

At film’s start Woody just seems out of it. Dern’s blue eyes, which glittered with cruelty in countless sociopath roles over the decades, appear devoid of emotion. But Woody snaps to attention at the mention of two topics: the sweepstakes prize, and the air compressor he swears his business partner (a hail-fellow-sleazy Stacy Keach) stole from him years ago.

Woody left that (fictional) town, Hawthorne, Neb., for Montana years ago with his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and now he just wants David to drive straight to Omaha to pick up his prize. But David’s his ride, so he must assent to David’s plan to stop in Hawthorne for an impromptu family reunion.

This section of “Nebraska” underscores how nostalgia for family origins often lessens the closer you get generationally to those origins. David wants to see the (now-abandoned) farm where Woody grew up. To Woody, who recalls his own parents’ tough-love approach to raising him, the only thing romantic about the place is that he moved two states away from it.

Payne gathers Woody and his many brothers for a funny scene that will ring true for anyone who comes from stoic people. The brothers, together for the first time in years, barely talk and stare blankly at a TV. When they do talk, it’s about cars, that subject men choose when they are glad to see you, buddy, but don’t want to get too deep.

Woody’s actually the live wire of the bunch. He suddenly remembers his manners when greeted by relatives or old friends.

Word gets out that he has won $1 million, and his newfound notoriety pleases Woody. His garage venture with Keach’s character didn’t pan out, and Woody didn’t amount to much in his hometown’s eyes. But this autumnal stroke of fortune makes him the most interesting man in town.

Seeing Woody’s friendly exchanges with well-wishers offers David insight into a father he previously saw as remote. David, given a generous soul by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Forte in his first big dramatic role, does not want to spoil things by pointing out the flimsiness of the $1 million offer.

Squibb is crassly funny as Kate, who joins her husband and son in Nebraska. She looks like a nice lady from the knitting circle and talks like the roughest sailor in port, delighting in detailing all the ways in which the men in Hawthorne wanted her before Woody married her. But the raunchiness is just one aspect of Kate’s tell-it-like-it-is personality. She’s also the backbone of her family.

She calls out Woody about his drinking, but she’s his biggest defender when the extended family starts making demands. There’s a reason the couple have been together for decades.

Also testifying to Woody’s one-time appeal is Hawthorne’s newspaper editor (Angela McEwan). McEwan lends a lovely wistfulness to a scene in which the editor talks to David about the young Woody.

The younger and older Woodys will merge in Dern’s performance, which underscores how nobody is just one thing, and that everyone is capable of at least a modicum of change. Even ornery men in their 70s.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct the location of the characters’ travel destination.


Stars:* * * * 

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach

Director: Alexander Payne

110 minutes

Rated R (language)