Director Alexander Payne (Descendents, Sideways) definitely has a style. He tells small stories and I don’t mean that in a negative way. He just presents us with pictures of average people doing average things. Not big drama, car chases or special effects. Just people living regular lives. Very relatable and as such his films really draw you in.
If I told you that his latest film is totally in black and white and tells the tale of an alcoholic and generally disoriented 70-something who mistakenly believes he has won a million dollars and his son, who is mostly humouring him, agrees to drive him to pick up the prize he knows doesn’t exist you might already be asleep before I even finish the short synopsis. Somehow Alexander Payne takes these very typical stories, moves them along at a slow but realistic pace and keeps our interest.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern – Monster, Django Unchained) is in his mid 70s and is in not great shape physically or mentally. Due to heavily drinking most of his life he is suffering in his twilight years. His wife Kate (June Squibb – About Schmidt, Scent of a Woman) is tired of looking after him and begs her two sons, David (Will Forte – from television’s Saturday Night Live) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk – from television’s Breaking Bad), to do something about it.
After receiving one of those silly “you have won a million dollars” from a magazine subscription company, Woody insists that he is going to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings. No matter how many times he is told it is a scam Woody ignores this and even sets out on foot from Billings, Montana to walk to Lincoln (a couple of states over!) to collect his money. A couple of times he is found by the police walking along the side of the road or even highway. David tries to talk some sense into his father, but he is insistent. So much so that David ends up taking a few days off work to drive his father to Lincoln.
Along the way the two spend more time together than they have in a long while and maybe ever. They obviously don’t know that much about each other. In an attempt to bond with his father, David suggests that they stop in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska.
What starts out as an attempt by David to get to know his father and his family history turns into something completely different. When word gets out that Woody is a millionaire he becomes something of a celebrity in this small town. The lure of the money brings all kinds of people including his own family who want a cut of the winnings.
A father and son road trip. A simple story enveloped in all that atmosphere created by Alexander Payne and it somehow works. I never felt like it was slow or plodding. It just felt real. All the details have been paid attention to in an effortless kind of way and contribute to the effect of the story. There is no attempt to pretty things up. It is honest right down to its core. The best and worst of each character surfaces in due time. Because of the naturalness of it all it is a film that brings about plenty of discussion as the lights go up in the theatre or the credits run on your television. A film that might require several watches to catch it all.
Payne’s vision is aided by the muted, but deadly effective, acting turn by Bruce Dern. He inhabits the character of Woody down to his crazy hair and unshaven face. Dern to not overplay the senility of his character instead his Woody becomes someone we have all come in contact with. Because of the nuances and layers he brings to his character makes you wonder just how out of it Woody is. Maybe this old and seemingly feeble man really is with it enough to have an ulterior motive to what he has done. He has a good onscreen partner in the surprising Will Forte. Previously I had only known him for his work on Saturday Night Live as a comedic sketch actor. Now he has shown a more sensitive side to his talent.
Obviously this is a film that appeals to the film community. That is proven by the fact that it has received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. It has also been recognized as one of the best films of the year by AFI, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker.
-The Making of Nebraska
-Ultra Violet Copy