Seventysomething Woody Grant (Dern) has the head-first, quick-step dodder of a toddler, dangerously fast and ever on the edge of a tumble. And a tumble is surely coming: It has to be, with Woody fixing all his hopes on the fantasy payout of a Publisher’s Clearing House-like scam. Is Woody addled by dementia or just clinging to a desperate dream at the end of his life? His exhausted, crabby wife Kate (Squibb) has no patience for her husband, a drunk and a disappointment, but son David (Forte) agrees to drive him from their home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., where Woody is convinced a $1 million prize is waiting for him – a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Only the rainbow is an endless interstate, rendered in ugly grays (the film was shot in color and converted to black and white in post), and if anybody’s the troll in this scenario, it’s Woody; he even has the same finger-in-the-socket shock of hair of those plastic troll dolls every Eighties kid collected. A more conventional narrative would make the trip a redemptive one – “asshole dad bonds with estranged son, becomes a better man in the process” – but Nebraska, scripted by Bob Nelson, is rather admirably about David coming to peace with his father, not the other way around.
A dry and exacting humorist whose films include The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Sideways, Alexander Payne makes observational comedies from an arch remove. His funny, detached picture of Midwesterners here is par for the course (just because the Nebraska-born and -bred director is of the people doesn’t mean he isn’t smirking at them), but he gets great work and genuine feeling out of his lead actors. His eyebrows slanted like two sides of a teepee into an expression of constant distress, SNL alum Forte is a surprising fount of melancholy and frustrated ambition, while Dern takes a tough part – a man of few words who might not be all there – and masterfully controls his body to convey Woody’s inner depths.