Fans of Home Alone will be happy to learn that Devin “please stop calling me Buzz” Ratray is even better today than he was back then. Oh, Bruce Dern and Will Forte are okay, too. Nebraska is a father and son road trip movie as only Alexander Payne can tell it. There is plenty of subtle humor, one of the best ensemble casts of the year, and the world that’s created by Payne is amplified by Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful black and white cinematography.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a man in his twilight years who has recently received a letter claiming that he may be a millionaire. Woody, who trusts first and asks questions later (if ever), believes that this is his chance to finally buy a new truck (even though he can no longer drive) and leave something for his children. He is on a mission to travel from Billings, Montana where he lives to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize of one million dollars—he even tries walking there on more than one occasion. The only problem is that everyone close to him, including his cantankerous wife Kate (played by June Squibb) and his sons David and Ross (played by Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, respectively) constantly try to (rightly) convince Woody that the letter he got in the mail is a complete scam trying to get him to subscribe to magazines. Finally, mostly just to get him to shut up, David agrees to take a few days off of work and drive his dad to Nebraska to claim a prize that in all likelihood does not exist.
Many critics are showering praise on Bruce Dern’s performance, and every bit of is warranted. In the scheme of things, Woody actually has very little dialogue, and his character arc is very subtle, but Dern turns in quite possibly the best performance of the year. By the end of the movie, we know Woodrow T. Grant. We know what makes him tick, what he wants, what he longs for. Along with the script and the filmmaking, it is because of the acting choices that Dern makes that we understand this character so fully, that we feel so strongly for him. The specificity of how he drinks a beer or the brief glimmer in his eyes when his son mentions an old flame of his tells us what’s really going on underneath the script. If it were a lesser actor’s portrayal, then this would just be a movie about an old man who thinks he won the lottery.
The rest of the cast is pitch perfect, as well. Will Forte matches Bruce Dern every step of the way—I never thought I’d be saying something like that regarding the actor who brought the world MacGruber. David’s relationship with Woody is the main focus of the film, and Forte nails it. June Squibb is great as well, as is the always-affable Bob Odenkirk as son, brother, and successful local news anchor Ross Grant. Stacy Keach does a terrific job as Woody’s old friend and business partner who now sees Woody’s newfound “wealth” as a chance to settle the score on some money that he believes he is owed. The aforementioned Devin Ratray, along with newcomer Tim Driscoll, offer some of the biggest laughs in the film as the lazy and greedy cousins who are all too eager to get a piece of that million dollars in which their now-favorite uncle Woody might be rolling.
Nebraska is not for everyone. Alexander Payne has made a career in finding meaning in life’s subtleties, and this is probably the biggest example of that style. There are entire scenes with virtually no dialogue that are there primarily to give us a sense of the environment. The movie takes its time telling us this story, and if you are willing to sit back and go on the journey, it is extremely rewarding. Mentioned earlier was the black and white cinematography by Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, who has been working alongside Alexander Payne since his 2004 film Sideways. The sweeping shots of the Nebraska landscape, combined with the shots of everyday simplicity—i.e. a pharmacy here, a gas station there, or a typically mundane Midwestern living room filled with atypically memorable Midwestern characters—help create the ambience that is Nebraska.
This is one of the best movies to come out in 2013, and one of Alexander Payne’s most interesting films to date. The acting is nuanced, the script is effective, and the cinematography and overall feel of the film will leave an impression on you. If for no other reason, check it out for Bruce Dern. You will be glad that you did.
Movie Review by Mike Danner