There aren't very many meaty acting opportunities for performers who have passed the age of 70, and fewer still that avoid turning them into caricatures or comic relief. Director Alexander Payne (2011's "The Descendants
") and first-time feature screenwriter Bob Nelson see things quite differently, the rough and tumble experiences of years gone by giving all the more shading and complexity to older characters who have been around the block a time or two. For 77-year-old Bruce Dern (2012's "Django Unchained
") and 84-year-old June Squibb (2013's "Would You Rather
"), "Nebraska" has blessed these two invaluable veterans with, possibly, the premier roles of their storied careers. In a motion picture that is frequently funny because it is so truthful and simultaneously moving for exactly the same reason, Dern and Squibband, for that matter, a commendably reeled-in and affecting Will Forte (2012's "That's My Boy
")deliver exquisite performances that feel legitimately lived-in. Even when the narrative itself begins to temporarily wander in the second act, the stirring human observation on display is accurate enough to seem as if one is eavesdropping on real people rooted in small-town Americana.
Korean War vet Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has been married to the opinionated, no-nonsense Kate (June Squibb) for fifty-some years and helped raise two sons, the grown Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte). Now in the twilight of his life, he has begun to suffer from dementia, prone to wandering away in the middle of the day and denying he has a drinking problem despite common knowledge that he's been an alcoholic for years. Kate is fed up with taking care of Woodyshe's not the warmest of people besidesand scoffs when he believes he's won a million dollars from a mailing sweepstakes. On a whim, David takes a few days off from his electronics retail job and decides to drive his old man from their home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize. What begins as something of a lark for Davidhe is well aware that the winning sweepstakes notice is a come-on and shamturns into an odyssey of discovery, providing him a fuller perspective into the person his father once was and, despite his mental illness, still is.
Although it may sound as if "Nebraska" is setting itself up as a saccharine melodrama full of life lessons, Payne and Nelson take a softer, more subtlebut also deeperapproach. Woody's mind has begun to deteriorate, but the depiction of such is more forthright and unsentimental than pitying. Aging, and eventually dying, are a part of life, the film's lingering impact coming from its eloquent universality in commenting on the passage of time. One can see this in David's strained but respectful relationship with his dad, wounds and hang-ups from the past coming to light, and also in a quietly devastating scene where David and his parents visit Woody's lonely, broken-down childhood home. As the three of them walk through the hallways and rooms, it is readily apparent that a family once lived there with their whole futures standing before themfutures that have now been lived, and are no more. A little earlier, they stop by a cemetery to pay their respects to past relatives and acquaintances who have passed. Kate reflects, all right, and she is none too shy about dishing to David exactly what she thought of them when they were still alive. It's an amusing and incendiary moment that says so much about Kate's personality and outlook without needing to spell it out.
Bruce Dern, throughout his career often typecast in bad-guy roles, is transformative as the stubborn, set-in-his-ways Woody. It is difficult to call him revelatory since that would suggest he wasn't always considered a fine actor, but it is close to that, too. Taking on a slumped posture and dazed, at times faintly belligerent, demeanor, Dern's Woody is marginalized by Kate, who has seen his special needs increase as his dementia has escalated. He isn't completely gone, though, and there are moments when the viewer catches breathless glimpses of a still-coherent Woody whose inherent bond with his son, in all their history together, is one which he still holds onto. As David, Will Forte is low-key perfection as a man nearing forty who isn't where he expected to be in his career and personal relationships, and sees in this trip to Nebraska the chance to connect one final time with his father. June Squibb is a sharp-tongued firecracker as David's mom, Kate, the kind of lady who outwardly practices tough love while inwardly caring about her family probably more than anything else. In a small but quietly unforgettable turn as a kindly woman from Woody's past whom he turned down to marry Kate, Angela McEwan is a vision of sweetness and sincerity, symbolic of an entirely different potential road not traveled.
Woody and Kate may be wiser in certain respects, but just like everyone they are imperfect and don't have all the answers. Meanwhile, David knows his parents will not always be around and doesn't want to have any more regrets. By the end, an act of supreme generosity on David's part will give Woody the kind of giftsand not just material oneswhich transcend the value of a million bucks. "Nebraska" has been photographed by Phedon Papamichael (2012's "This Is 40
") in starkly beautiful black and white, breeding down-home nostalgia from its portrayal of sleepy, retrospective Middle-American landscapes. When Woody, David, and later Kate, who arrives by bus, make a days-long pit-stop in their hometown, staying with relatives, mixing with the locals, and becoming the talk of the community when misleading word gets out that Woody has just won a jackpot, Payne and Nelson do not give them enough reason to stay put for so long. There is very little keeping them there, and this postponement of their trip could have used more motivation. It is a small point, but a valid one, as all that surrounds this storytelling contrivance is appreciably authentic. At the picture's center are average guys Woody and David, a father and son joined together by so much more than blood. "Nebraska" is a moving little slice-of-life gem, unassumingly big in existential significance.