“A road trip comedy with heart.”

A road trip comedy with heart. That is perhaps the easiest way to describe Alexander Payne’s latest film, Nebraska. Filmed in black and white, and starring the indelible Bruce Dern, the far-too-unknown June Squibb, and a charmingly restrained Will Forte, Nebraska is a stunningly simple film that manages to be heartfelt without ever becoming corny.

The premise is simple. Dern’s character, Woody Grant, thinks he has won a million dollar sweepstakes. His son, David, is sure his father has won nothing more than the chance to subscribe to magazines that will go unread, and Woody’s wife, Kate, doesn’t seem to care if he won or not. Her biggest complaint with the father and son heading to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the winnings seems to be that without Woody in the house, she’ll have nobody to complain about.

The road trip doesn’t go as smoothly as David hoped, and after a brief trip to the hospital Woody begrudgingly must spend some time with family in Hawthorne. While David is taunted for his slow driving, and is reminded of the success of his brother, Ross, his similarities to his quiet, yet cantankerous father emerge.  Soon, Kate joins her family in Hawthorne, and no sooner steps off the bus than starts complaining about Woody, David, and the trip.  As word of Woody’s winnings spread through Hawthorne, David becomes more aware of just who his father is, which in turn causes him to learn more about himself.

Directed by
Alexander Payne
Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Release Date
24 January 2014
Bethany’s Grade: A

Nebraska is a fantastic character study. The black-and-white cinematography was the perfect choice to capture this story about humanity. The focus of the story is often internally inspired. It is a story of Woody’s never-too-late realizations about his life. It is a story of David’s appreciation of his father, and his motivation to take control of his life. The black-and-white background allows the audience to focus on emotions and facial expressions, all while underlying the flat Midwestern landscape and dull feeling the characters often have.

One of the film’s pivotal scenes occurs just after Kate’s arrival in Hawthorne. She insists that her father and son skip lunch and accompany her to the cemetery. The personalities and fears of the three are mirrored in their actions and positions as they look at the graves. Woody stands well behind Kate and David, silently staring through them as his white hair chaotically blows in the breeze. David stands next to his mother, but he is not positioned as the leader. It is clear that Kate is the alpha of the family. She takes control of the conversation, telling David about the lives of some of the departed while also injecting jokes into the tales. David is there to listen. He is able to ask questions, but he will only question those who are no longer alive. He is still not able to question himself. That is until Kate points out the grave of David Grant, Woody’s brother who died when he was two. David makes his way around to the grave and stares down at his own name chiseled into the grave marker.  Each person leaves that cemetery on the cusp of change.

The past is a ghost that most of the characters are haunted by. Kate is able to make jokes about her past, though the more over-the-top her jokes go, the clearer it is that humor is her coping mechanism. David’s haunting is unique in that it is his future that seems ominous if he continues on his current path. Woody’s journey takes him to the center of his past, and it is there that he must finally confront his own ghosts.

The quiet misery and eventual hope were elevated to moving levels thanks to the performances of the cast, particularly Dern, Squibb, and Forte. While Dern is the film’s protagonist, he often has the least to say in his scenes. Squibb almost always dominates conversations, and Dern is often reacting to the questions and actions of others. But the quiet moments are always rich, never flat. While Kate has no qualms joking about her former sexual conquests (or those who wish they made the cut), it is impossible to not find her charming, as Squibb’s performance is a wonderful blend of charm and humor in spite of also being incredibly crass. And Forte, who is perhaps best known for his roles on Saturday Night Live, manages to stand out in a quieter role as the lonely, less successful son.

While watching Nebraska, the question that will likely be on the minds of the audience isn’t so much, “Did Woody win the money?” but, “Do these characters find happiness?” The desire to have Woody and David receive their moments of catharsis is the result of a beautifully filmed and written story, that includes compelling and realistic performances. Nebraska is another great work that stays true to director Alexander Payne’s character-driven filmography.

Review by Bethany Rose, Contributing Film Critic