There is perhaps nothing more earnest, more emotionally affecting, than a full display of gullibility in a character. And when director Alexander Payne relies on it, we are in for a treat. With screen credits such as Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and The Descendants (2011), Payne has received his share of accolades. In his newest release, Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson, he once again delivers, but with a more humbled hand. The quickly-aging alcoholic and Korean War veteran Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), living in Billings, Montana, convinces himself that the sweepstakes offer of one million dollars mailed to his home is truly a winner. Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb)—his best critic to say the least—and his youngest son David (Will Forte) see no logic in his incessant attempts to leave and retrieve his prize from a major corporation in Lincoln, Nebraska. Though Kate remains harshly protective of Woody’s best interests, David’s softer, yielding personality compels him to take his dad for a trip, allowing us to see so much of what constitutes human belief that even the widest expanses of the Badlands cannot contain it.
Reminiscent of Sideways and About Schmidt in its use of “road-movie” devices—gas station breaks, clouds eclipsing the sun, rolling Midwestern hills with marshmallow-sized hay bails seen from afar—the story reveals David and Woody as distracted dreamers. In one scene, David’s ex-girlfriend arrives at his apartment to return a few more of his possessions after breaking off a two-year relationship. Seeing wilting houseplants, she admonishes, “David, you need to water these plants. These are plants.” A true testament of his inability to foresee consequence, the neglected vegetation is only the beginning of the impending assault that gains momentum after David takes his father to the fictional town of Hawthorne, where members of the Grant family congregate and find out that Woody is potentially coming into money. And all Woody simply wishes to purchase is a new truck and an air compressor to take the place of the one stolen by his former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).
Like father, like son. They fall prey to a type of greed seething beneath placid grazing lands and rearing its head in hazy barrooms, when it is a farce from the start. With his white, matted hair, short wiry beard, and oversized plaid shirts, Dern’s Woody creates the reputation of a man who never turned down a favor in a small town, but expected who-knows-what in return. “It ruined him,” Kate hastily replies in an argument with Woody’s nephews. His beaten countenance and reticence is telling of how the institution of marriage, the promise of self-employment, and the American war machine have failed him. Everything is not so black-and-white as the cinematography may suggest, but somehow for Woody, it always should be. And when after traveling far and wide to only then receive something as plain as a commemorative hat in Lincoln, an administrative associate asks, “Does he have Alzheimer’s?” David replies, “No, he just believes in what people tell him.” Nebraska cuts through the unwanted muscle and ligaments of what cinematic narrative can sometimes contain and reverts to the bare bones of storytelling with simply chiseled characters and impressive results.