Most everyone grows up being taken care of and, at some point in life, ends up taking care of someone else. In most cases, we all end up caring for our parents in the later years of their lives. Everybody worries for their loved ones and only wants them to have some shred of happiness in their final years. For some, their parents are relaxed and live normal lives. For others, their parents aren’t satisfied with getting old and are yearning for something to give them purpose again. The only problem with this yearning is that it could lead your parents down a wandering path that you know leads to nowhere. How far do you let your parents go, so that they can achieve happiness and purpose?
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man who lives a dull life in Montana. He sits around his house and doesn’t do too much of anything, until the day he receives a life-changing piece of mail. According to a flyer, Woody has won 1 Million dollars and needs to head out to Nebraska to claim his prize. So, naturally, he begins to walk to Lincoln. When Woody is stopped and brought home by an officer, his son David (Will Forte) steps in to talk some sense into his susceptible father. Despite David’s efforts, Woody believes that the flier is true and eventually persuades David to take him to Lincoln, despite the wishes of his outspoken wife, Kate (June Squibb).
As Woody and David travel to Nebraska, things go awry when Woody suffers a head injury. To make matters worse, Woody and David have to rest up at Woody’s brother’s house in a small town in Nebraska. It’s here that David gets a glimpse into his father’s life at one point. When more members of Woody’s family and old friends in the local bars learn that Woody is a millionaire, everyone’s true colors emerge as they all feel as if they deserve a share of the earnings. In an instant, the once humdrum town and citizens take an interest in Woody, unaware that he hasn’t actually won anything. When Woody’s past is revealed by his old work partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), David begins to see his father in a new light. David is left with the decision to either let his father continue to Lincoln, or cut the trip short and take him home.
Nebraska is a trifecta of film brilliance. The combination of Bob Nelson‘s phenomenal script, Bruce Dern’s Oscar-worthy performance, and Alexander Payne‘s direction makes this film a powerhouse that evokes every kind of emotion. Shot in black and white, this film paints a pretty clear picture of what life in parts of Nebraska is like. The never-ending plains and small towns feed the uninteresting lives of most of the characters in the film. One of the biggest points that the film emphasizes is that these people never leave Nebraska, let alone their own towns. They all live and die in the same place and lead the same lives until death comes a-knocking.
Bruce Dern does a splendid job of becoming Woody, a man looking for purpose. Woody calls back to a time where what was printed had to be true. His susceptibility and need for a change speak to all of us who have elderly relatives who seem miserable. Woody doesn’t want to become like the rest of his large family, who spend their days muttering and watching television. Will Forte plays David extremely well, as his character struggles with keeping his father at bay, which means also keeping him from a new adventure. David’s concern for his father is always there, but he also finds him self resenting his father as Woody’s past becomes revealed. The relationship between the two is simple, yet complex in its inner-workings. Both Dern’s and Forte’s performances compliment each other, making this film all the more enjoyable.
You can’t talk about this film being enjoyable without mentioning June Squibb’s hilarious performance as Kate, Woody’s headstrong wife who thinks that he’s a complete moron. Kate has little, to no, tolerance for Woody’s actions and makes that known to all. In one great scene, Kate summarizes each of Woody’s deceased relatives in some of the funniest dialog in the film. There are some great moments when Kate shows her love for Woody, but then she’s back to teasing him and making sure that he knows just how big of a moron he really is. June Squibb holds nothing back and curses nonchalantly, as she judges almost everyone in Woody’s small hometown. You can always count on Kate to have something to say about a certain person.
At the heart of Nebraska is an Oscar-worthy script that is already topping prediction lists. While a film seemingly about the supposedly-boring nature of Nebraskan life may not appeal to everyone, there is so much more to this script than that. Woody manages to break out from his family’s repetitive lifestyles and make a life for himself. Upon returning home, he resorts to old tendencies and it’s apparent that not much has changed. Undereducated and uninteresting characters make for dozens of laughs, as their way of life is so drastically different compared to almost anything else. It’s amazing to watch how certain characters react to infinitesimal details of the “outside” world. Above all, the script really makes you think about your own loved ones and the lives that they’re living now. We all want the best for them, even if that includes a little bit of mindless adventuring.
Director Alexander Payne has a great way of telling the most unique stories in the most interesting of ways, evident in such films as The Descendants, Sideways, and About Schmidt. Having grown up in Nebraska, Payne paints a vivid picture of what country life and city life are like. The use of black and white filming sums up the feel that Nebraska evokes and the long shots of hills, fields, and small towns all make you feel like you know this state so well. Payne has a wonderful gift for telling stories that is more evident than ever in this film. You’ll feel connected to this film in ways you can’t imagine and it’s that level of direction that distinguishes Payne as one of the best working filmmakers. He knows how to cast and adapt screenplays, which effectively helped Nebraska become one of my favorite films this year.
What makes Nebraska so great is that everyone can leave the film with something to take away. Be it a memory or the will to help a loved one experience life, everyone will find something to love in Nebraska. Its simple story is full of memorable moments and characters that you can’t help but relate to members of your own family. The balance of comedy and drama is perfect and neither is overstated or prolonged. There is an overwhelmingly large amount of joy to be had while watching Nebraska, so I urge everyone to go get some for themselves by seeing this film as soon as you can!