Nebraska is one of the year’s best movies and Bruce Dern gives one of the year’s best performances. Huge credit goes to screenwriter Bob Nelson and director Alex Payne for their story, their characters and their settings.
If you’ve ever heard or read about Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, or if you have spent time in a rural plains community, you’ll recognize many of the people and places in Nebraska.
Hawthorne, the town in Nebraska where much of the movie takes place, has both Lutheran and Catholic churches, plenty of bars and large plots of farmland surrounding the town. It’s the hometown of Woody Grant (Dern) and his wife Kate (June Squibb). They live in Billings, Montana now.
The journey to Nebraska begins when Woody gets a letter in the mail naming him the winner of a million dollars. He wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash it in. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive his dad from Billings to Lincoln. After an accident slows them down, they decide to stop in Hawthorne and spend the weekend with Woody’s brother and his family.
Kate and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) also head over to Hawthorne and a family reunion of sorts gets underway. Old memories are recalled. Will runs into his former business partner and town blowhard Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) who stirs up old turmoil. David learns things about his family that he never knew.
A favorite scene is a cemetery visit where tombstones elicit memories of past family members, friends, lovers and enemies. (I lived a version of that scene in my own life in 2009 with a visit to Gully, Minnesota, where my father-in-law and many more of my wife’s relatives are buried.) A visit to the old abandoned homestead brings back memories, some unhappy, for Woody.
Nebraska has several side characters that add spark to the film, especially David’s two cousins who are hilarious. Woody’s brother Ray, incidentally, is played by Rance Howard, father of Ron “Opie” Howard.
Director Alexander Payne shot Nebraska in black and white, which is perfect for showcasing a town that probably looks about the same as it did 50 years ago. He punctuates the film with lingering shots of plains landscapes, which communicate the sense of being in the middle of nowhere.
Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and is a likely candidate for an Oscar nomination. His character appears to be simple, but is revealed to be complex, with demons and resentments that have haunted him for a lifetime. Dern should be ever grateful to Payne and Nelson for handing him such a wonderful role, especially at this point in his life. He’s 77.
84-year-old June Squibb brings spunk to her role as the wife who has endured much during her marriage to Woody. She should also be mentioned in awards conversations.
Nebraska is engaging on many levels, but mainly for capturing true human emotion. I highly recommend you see this film and, if they’re still around, take your parents and grandparents.