When was the last time you saw a movie set in the Midwest?
Think about that question for a minute, and you’ll realize that the answer is, “Quite a long time ago” or “Very rarely.” Even though movies have the freedom to explore every corner of the known world (not to mention the unknown ones), Hollywood productions rarely take up issues of the heartland. And when they do, they often do so in a simplistic, stereotypical way, emphasizing the wackadoo accents and aw-shucks sincerity without searching for some humanity beneath the superficial.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska doesn’t entirely avoid those stereotypes, nor does it pretend to – its principle actors adopt accents that could only be described as Midwestern. What elevates this film beyond generic depictions of the Midwest is its willingness to see beyond the stereotypes. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson observe the oddly confining vastness of the “amber waves of grain,” capturing the claustrophobia that comes with being so small in a world so large. At the same time, this is a touching film about relationships between fathers and sons and a grimly amusing commentary on the challenges of timelessness.
The film opens with a wide shot of curmudgeonly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) stumping briskly on the side of a heavily trafficked highway. A police officer pulls up next to him and asks him where he’s going. “Lincoln, Nebraska!” he proclaims. Perfectly fine – except that he’s in Montana. It’s a long walk.
Woody’s son David (Will Forte) collects Woody from the police station and discovers that Woody wants to go to Lincoln to collect $1 million from a sweepstakes he won in the mail. It’s a scam and David knows it. But Woody doesn’t give up, despite adamant protests from his wife Kate (June Squibb). And David, ever the dutiful son despite his frustrations with his father’s alcoholism and general incoherence, can’t bear to see this man beaten down once again. He offers to drive Woody to Nebraska. Commence road trip. Hilarity ensues.
But it doesn’t, not exactly. Up until this point, the movie is an observant light comedy with a melancholy streak – far from revolutionary, but agreeable nonetheless. Once David and Woody set off for Nebraska in the Subaru, the movie elevates its game. Forte and Dern’s performances transcend competence into something approaching profundity. Even though he’s clean-cut and “average” in the conventional senses of the term, Forte injects David with a potent sense of regret. Meanwhile, Dern turns in a master class in subtlety – his mournful glances deepen his character beyond the kind of guy we’ve seen dozens of times before: Carl Fredericksen from Up, to name one example. Woody doesn’t speak much, and when he does, it’s usually only for a word or two, but Dern modulates the character’s misanthrophy with a touch of wistfulness. He never lets you forget that he’s had it with the world, but some part of him can’t let go just yet.
Nebraska is at its most satisfying in its middle section, when Woody explores his old hometown of Hawthorne and encounters many people from his childhood and early adulthood. Payne’s nuanced approach to Midwestern character shines through in these scenes. Eight people sit in a room eating dinner and no one says a word for minutes on end. There’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. Life is uncomplicated and docile. We see modern technology for only seconds at a time. The citizens of this town don’t have simple minds, just simple lifestyles. They’re comfortable with the frugality of their intellectual lives. Payne’s decision to shoot Nebraska in color and drain it to black-and-white afterwards lends these scenes an extra layer of history.
These scenes also afford June Squibb, as Woody’s loving but irritable wife Kate, myriad opportunities to wax nostalgic about her scandalous youth and to comment freely about her opinions of the townspeople. Squibb masterfully tamps down Kate’s vengeful streak so that we can sympathize with the character’s frustrations. She’s not a shrill harpy, but she isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even when her mind is telling her to say things that other people find rude or disruptive.
After the surprising depth of the movie’s middle section, which also features a wide array of colorful supporting performances (Bob Odenkirk, Stacey Keach, Mary Louise Wilson and Angela McEwan deserve special mention), Nebraska settles on an ending that could only be described as modest and formulaic. It’s initially disappointing to see the film squander its originality for an ending that leans more heavily on cheap sentimentality than anything that comes before, but the ending also affirms the movie’s generous spirit and straightforward goals. By the end, Nebraska and the people within it aren’t caricatures anymore. American movies probably don’t care about the Midwest enough, but this movie is an exception. The characters are real people living in the real world, and we care because they’re worth caring about.