from Arts & Entertainment Correspondent Joyce Kulhawik
NEBRASKA the movie is an instantly mesmerizing tale directed by the man who gave us THE DESCENDANTS, Alexander Payne. This time, instead of the tropical paradise of Hawaii, we’re in the wide, often desolate landscape of Wyoming, Montana, and eventually Nebraska where an aging alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) has set out on foot to reclaim his supposed million dollar winnings in a sweepstakes. His estranged son David (Will Forte) returns home to help his burdened mother, and decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to help him claim his prize. The outer landscape may be different here, but the inner terrain Payne explores is much the same: mortality, the pull and transience of the past, the impotence of money, the enduring power of the land, and the value of what we leave behind. The father simply means to secure some kind of legacy for his son, the son is finally trying to grasp a father he’s never been close to, and a really strange road trip ensues.
This is Alexander Payne by way of Jim Jarmusch (STRANGER THAN PARADISE) and the Coen brothers. The film is shot in black and white, and the plain Midwestern folk we meet are captured in all their stark, monosyllabic, American Gothic glory. When we first see old Woody Grant trudging up the highway alone with no bags on a thousand mile trek to claim his sweepstakes winnings, a sheriff pulls over and asks the old man where he’s headed; Woody points forward. When the sheriff asks where he’s comin’ from, Woody points backward—then keeps on walking out of frame. The audience burst out laughing. This scene sets the tragi-comic tone to follow. A wild-eyed Bruce Dern plays the war-wounded drunk Woody. He’s addled and angry in between fits of blank lucidity. I felt for this straightforward guy on a mission, vulnerable to taking people at their word, in a world more sophisticated than he could ever be. His wife Kate (June Squibb) is a raunchy truth teller who looks like a toad, catalogues every drunk, whore, and lech in the family, and takes no guff. When push comes to shove—it’s clear why Woody has her on his side. Son David, who has a dull job and whose girlfriend has left him, is played with hangdog poignancy by the usually funny SNL regular Will Forte. Big brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is a balding, up and coming local TV anchorman in a no-news town. Down the road we meet more extended family and long lost friends, including a pair of low-life cousins, and an old crony played with cagey charm by Stacy Keach: the action is sandwiched between a blackly comic side trip to the family graveyard, and a slapstick “air compressor caper” at a neighboring farm. I’ve never been to Nebraska or Hawaii, but Alexander Payne manages to find the deeply familiar in the superficially strange—and it’s always worth the trip.