Bruce Dern won Best Actor at Cannes in 2013 for his role as Woody Grant, a cantankerous, ageing drunk, in this family drama by director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants). Dern was also nominated for a Golden Globe this week, and though he he didn't win his performance is quite marvellous and would have been worthy of the accolade.
Dern's Woody Grant is an impossible to live with, booze-addled, grumpy old man suffering from the onset of dementia. He's also determined to travel from Montana to Nebraska to collect a million-dollar sweepstakes prize he believes he's won. His family, long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and estranged sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), are unable to talk sense into him and after he has made a couple of failed attempts to walk to Nebraska, David agrees to drive him.
A drunk accident on the way leads to the duo resting up with Woody's family in the small, dying hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska for a few days. News of Woody's mission to collect his fortune becomes public knowledge and quickly family and old friends come forward to claim old debts. It's when both men find themselves reflecting on their lives and choices that what started as a simple family drama unfolds into a beautiful road trip filled with humour and sadness, longing and regret.
Dern is largely responsible for pulling together a cast of professional and non-actors, and it's testament to his performance that he can make such a difficult man empathetic.
Saturday Night Live's Will Forte is an unusual choice for the dramatic role of David and it's an awkward start, possibly as he tries to find his feet as the "normal guy" among other strong characters with big personalities. Though he does ground the story as the most relatable character, and provides a safe view through which we can watch the pilgrimage.
Filming in black and white, at times even shining silver, initially feels feel like an unusual choice, but once Woody and David hit the road the beautiful cinematography by Phedon Papamichael takes over and brings to life another layer of the story; the decline of the smalltown in America's Midwest.
The bleak, poetic landscapes match screenwriter Bob Nelson's sparse script and the result is a multilayered and timeless film that offers a nostalgic view of contemporary American life.
Nebraska is at times slow but Payne draws you in with simple, honest storytelling and a delightful deadpan sense of humour. It may take some time to realise how special this gritty and unsentimental examination of family dynamics and Payne's home state is, but Nebraska is worth the patience.
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte
Director: Alexander Payn
Running time: 110 mins
Rating: M (offensive language, sexual references)
Verdict: A memorable, bittersweet family drama.