I can’t hear the word “Nebraska” without thinking of the Bruce Springsteen album of the same name. While it was not a commercial success, it was critically acclaimed for its stark, stripped-down look at the underside of life. It featured a black-and-white cover and included songs about murder, desperation, and hope. Nebraska the film, written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, is also a colorless presentation of desperation and hope, but there’s no murder. Assault, yeah, more than one, but no murder.
Woody Hunt (Bruce Dern) finds something we’ve all seen before, a certificate from a company in Nebraska that suggests he has won a million bucks. While most of us throw them away, Woody seems convinced someone owes him some cash and he’s going to get it even if he has to walk, which he tries nearly every chance he gets. His wife Kate (June Squibb) thinks he’s a “dumb cluck.” His older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) wants to put him in a home. But his younger son Dave (Will Forte) wants to give him a break. He calls out sick from work for a few days, packs the car, and they start driving to Lincoln from Billings, Montana.
At times Woody seems distant, despondent. It is suggested he’s got Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it’s never, almost never entirely clear what – if anything – is happening behind his sad, indignant eyes and wiry spectacles. One thing that is happening is Woody’s regular want for a beer. Maybe a “need” more than a “want,” but it’s a shadow leftover from a former substance issue. I’ll come back to that later.
En route the Cornhusker State they make a few stops, some intentional, some not so much. One for tourism, one for a gash to the head, one for missing dentures, and one or two or three for a beer. They have family in the town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they stop while waiting for Kate and Ross to catch up and join a smalltown family reunion. Bad idea for them, good idea for the audience.
Much like a Coen Brothers story, nearly everyone is an idiot in one way or another, and we watch as David tries to fend off the foolishness while protecting his father both physically and emotionally. He knows the million-dollar certificate is garbage, but he can’t seem to convince the rest of the extended, long-time-no-see family or his former business partner from decades past. They are all a little too happy to see him.
At first, Nebraska and Dern (Django Unchained, Monster) seemed to be like On Golden Pond and Henry Fonda. About one-third through it shifted gears a little, as if the Coen Brothers might have hacked into the script. Then Oscar-winning director Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Robert Nelson got their script back. Then it was hacked again. Then I wasn’t sure. Woody wanders the highway, drifts into bars, sneaks out of a motel room, loses his dentures, and gashes his head badly enough for a hospital stay, but he never seems phased by anything other than his million bucks. Everyone else must either deal with it or stay home.
Squibb (Meet Joe Black, Scent of a Woman) wasn’t nominated for an Oscar by accident. She’s like a heavy-handed flyswatter. She doesn’t do much, but when she does – BAM – so you better watch yourself. Stacy Keach (The Bourne Legacy, American History X) is Ed Pegram, Woody’s former business partner who Woody believes borrowed an air compressor but never returned it. Ed, however, believes he has loaned Woody thousands of dollars, and he wants his piece of the million. He is one of several characters who Woody runs into, sometimes literally, as he drifts through his own history en route Lincoln, where his imagined treasure lay. Lie. Is.
That leaves Forte (MacGruber, The Lego Movie) as Woody’s faithful son, David. Forte has too much screen credit to have acted as poorly as it seemed, so Payne must have wanted him to be boring enough we’d focus on Woody instead. I mean, yeah, it makes sense, but sometimes he recited his lines like he was reading a prescription bottle. Still, it makes sense if that’s how he was directed. I won’t say it didn’t work, but I won’t say he wasn’t duller than a sponge either.
What the whole film hinges upon is whether or not Woody really has lost his senses – due to either age, alcohol, or both – or if he’s just pretending in order to get a little attention from a disconnected, dull family that doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him. Either can make a good film, but each makes for a different film. There are two moments that will give you the answer. The first one comes about 40 minutes in, and at that point I had a clue. The second one is at about 90 minutes, and then I was sure. I won’t name the scenes nor the clues, but please feel free to give it a shot if you have seen the film.
For Nebraska, not all six Oscar nominations were a surprise. Original screenplay, sure. Supporting actress, no argument in those categories. For it to have won anything substantial, well, I think Woody had a better shot at getting his million bucks.
Teacher gives it a B-.