The premise of Alexander Payne’s road movie Nebraska is an obvious dead end. An elderly man in Billings, Montana, receives a form letter saying he’s the winner of a million-dollar-sweepstakes prize and that all he needs to do is call the company and maybe buy a magazine subscription or three. To collect his supposed fortune, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) insists on traveling the 900 miles from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, in person, on foot if no one will drive him. (Being somewhat addled, he has lost his license.) Woody’s son, an electronics-store salesman named David (Will Forte), tries patiently to explain that there’s no million dollars in Nebraska. Woody’s diminutive-hellion wife, Kate (June Squibb), adds that he’s a “dumb cluck” and that if he wanted to be a millionaire, he should have worked for it years ago. But whenever his family turns their backs, the old man is quickly out the door, trudging southeast in the snow toward the Magic Kingdom that is Nebraska.
The problem going in is that it’s hard to make an emotional investment in a man so mulishly, irrationally wrong, and one who’s surly and taciturn to boot. The movie’s trailer makes the journey look especially cringe-worthy. It’s cut to suggest whimsy, like Waking Ned Devine or some other comedy about puckish elders doing the darndest things. Then there’s the question Payne’s movies always seem to raise: Is he condescending to the little people? His Midwest (he grew up there) is rich in overweight, intellectually underpowered yokels whose ugly dwellings are an insult to the land on which they squat. Working from a script by Bob Nelson, Payne seems to have done everything possible to shoot the tires on his own car.
It turns out, though, that the point where so many of us squirm is Payne’s artistic sweet spot: the famously fine line between love and hate, empathy and ridicule. Nebraska is a bumpy ride—I fought with it constantly. But that car goes somewhere unexpected. The movie is a triumph of an especially satisfying kind. It arrives at a kind of gnarled grace that’s true to this sorry old man and the family he let down in so many ways.
What sympathy we give to Woody we’re probably giving to Dern, an actor who rose to semi-stardom in the shadow of counterculture supernovas like Jack Nicholson and who never found a niche—but has hung on honorably (and given us a treasure in his daughter, Laura). Dern has always had a runner’s gauntness, but now he’s yet more drawn, with a shock of white hair and eyes that are mostly cast down. But when he lifts them, they’re huge and liquid. Alcohol as well as age have evidently burned out a lot of Woody’s synapses, and he wasn’t given to talk, in any case. He served in Korea and married and had kids without discussing it. The question hangs from first frame to last: How much is in there? How much does he know? How much does he feel? Dern gives a beautiful performance, near-pantomime—broken with the odd expulsive obscenity.
Will Forte is an ordinary-looking guy with a manic streak in comedy that takes him places even he likely doesn’t understand. He doesn’t get to tap that mania here—he’s the harried straight man. But his energy keeps the movie going. His David reacts to everything while his father appears to register nothing. David agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, but takes a detour off the highway to the small Nebraska town where he was born and where Woody and Kate once made their life. Woody’s family is still there and so are many of his old neighbors and friends—uneasy friends, friends with grudges. Why did the family decamp for Billings? Why has Woody been gone so long, and why has he never looked back?
There’s a tension from the start between the crabbed, shut-down characters and the gorgeously expansive frames, which are heavy on Midwest-farmland iconography and cows and rusted machinery and puffy clouds. Payne has chosen to shoot Nebraska in black and white, and though at first I asked, “Why?,” I soon realized that color would be a distraction and that many things are better in black and white. Even David’s cousins—one on parole after a sexual assault and both unemployed, transfixed by the TV and photographed to look like Fat and Fatter—have an iconic sharpness. “This economy has just torn up young men,” says their mother, and who knows what’s nature and what’s the deadening effect of their milieu? Woody joins his elderly brothers for a reunion, which largely consists of the old men sitting in their plaid shirts in front of the television; they trade monosyllables without looking one another’s way. Nature or nurture? Their fine, weathered features (Payne uses many nonactors) and composer Mark Orton’s stoic, minor-key banjo and strings give them a dignity that turns an easy sight gag into something more mysterious.
The prospect of Woody’s sudden wealth brings out the thug in Woody’s family and former friends, among them Stacy Keach as an ex–business partner soaked in booze and resentment—a hard, scary performance. There’s an edge to the other elders, too, who are outwardly friendly but suspicious. More than half of Nebraska is bleak and spiky, redolent of alcohol and rust, of unwelcoming old-man bars. But there are respites. Bob Odenkirk shows up as David’s older brother, Ross, a TV reporter on the verge (maybe) of becoming an anchorman. Ross’s smoothness makes him seem as if he’s from another dimension—television has given him a reassuringly civilized veneer. An actress named Angela McEwan has a blessedly gentle scene as the owner of a small-town newspaper who knows Woody through and through and forgives him everything. Squibb has the showstopping role. She powers through her insults, hammering away at the fading Woody but saving her most exultant put-downs for the family she left in evident disgust.
Nebraska has something close to a feel-good ending, and it’s not—miraculously—a cheat. Payne and screenwriter Nelson pull a rabbit out of their hat. They turn their focus inward; they go to the emotional source of Woody’s quest, his idée fixe. They even account—obliquely—for his dementia, which must be partly willed, the longed-for stupor of a man who doesn’t want to reckon with a half-lived life. His sudden connection with the son who sticks by him in spite of everything is worth the price of a ticket—ours and David’s. At the end of the road, you feel like a million bucks.