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Family drama

Profile image for By Boo Allen
By Boo Allen

Woodrow Grant has won a million dollars, and he wants his money.

He wants it even if he has to walk from Montana to Nebraska to get it.

Nebraska is the latest bittersweet commentary on life from director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt), our most acute observer of the human condition. Here, Payne uses the weak, unstable mind of Woodrow Grant (Bruce Dern) to examine the unintended yet lasting effects of a life poorly spent.

It seems everyone in town knows Woody. And everyone has at least one good reason to hold a grudge against him. Much of Woody’s past behavior is revealed but not excused. And, surprisingly, those he has wronged the most don’t hold a grudge against him, taking his many miscues as part of the greater mosaic.

Payne works from Bob Nelson’s deceptively barbed script, one filled with insight about inherent greed, family loyalty and a need for clarity and closure. Nelson’s dialogue finds the best translator in Payne, one who knows when to sharpen the wits to fully capture a character.

For his part, Woody proves a constant trial to his family. He would also be a pain to his friends if he had any left.

When Woody believes a magazine sweepstakes’ promise of riches, his youngest son, David (Will Forte), grudgingly agrees to drive him from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect. Whether he has actually won doesn’t matter, because it is in the father-son odyssey that David learns more about his father than he ever has before.

We learn Woodrow was not a model father. He drank to excess, ran around on his wife, Kate (a terrific June Squibb), and borrowed money from friends he never paid back.

Now that he hears the impending chimes at midnight, Woody has drifted off into a semiconscious netherland that allows him million-dollar fantasies along with the convenience of forgetting his past transgressions.

But the pull of family keeps David driving on, stopping in Hawthorne, Neb., to visit his father’s brother, Ray (Rance Howard), and various old friends, almost all of whom want to capitalize on what they believe is Woody’s newfound largesse. Payne’s depiction of this small-town mindset wavers between warm portraiture and bitter condemnation.

Some of the Hawthorne scenes qualify as nearly genius, as Payne intuitively knows when to let silence speak volumes, while also expertly coaxing an unknown supporting cast, many of whom are non-professionals, into several sublime moments of deadpan drollery. And all the while, Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful black-and-white photography captures the haunting eeriness of the area’s barren plains.

As in all of Payne’s films, Nebraska doesn’t go for the knockout but instead delivers building yet resonating humor, and, more importantly, provides much to think about long after the movie is over.