When Bruce Dern was a young actor playing Tom Buchanan in the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby (1974), the former athlete used to run all the way from his hotel in central London to Pinewood Studios in time for the day’s shooting. Now, at the tail end of his career, he is cast as a character embarked on an equally unlikely and epic journey. Woody Grant (Dern) is a frail old man who has got it into his head that he has won $1m in a magazine marketing competition. He is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up his winnings.
Nebraska is director Alexander Payne’s sixth feature and almost certainly his best. It has a tenderness for its protagonists that wasn’t always there in Payne’s earlier films, such as Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. The film, beautifully shot in widescreen black and white, manages to be elegiac in tone without sacrificing Payne’s trademark caustic humour and his forensic focus on the foibles and pretensions of his troubled characters.
Dern, previously most famous for shooting John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys and for his work in 1970s classics such as Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, gives a magisterial performance as the cantankerous and confused Woody – small-town Montana’s answer to King Lear.
“Where you headed to?” Woody is asked by a cop who stops him as he is shuffling down the highway on his Quixotic journey to redeem his winnings. He simply points in the direction he is going.
At the start of the film, everybody is exasperated with Woody, his long-suffering, foul-mouthed wife Kate (June Squibb) most of all. He drinks too much. He has been a neglectful father to his two sons. He never made much money in his life. The talk is of putting him in a home as soon as possible. Almost as a last resort, his son David (Will Forte) takes time off from his dead-end job in an electrical goods store to drive Woody to Lincoln.
In these early scenes, there is an utter absence of sentimentality. Dern certainly doesn’t play Woody as a sweet-natured old man. We are made aware fully of why he drives his family to distraction. David’s attempts to humour him come to nothing. “Looks like somebody got bored doing it,” is the old man’s grumbling response when his son insists on taking him to Mount Rushmore to see the presidents’ faces carved into the rocks. In one excruciating scene, Woody loses his dentures. Father and son scrabble around on the railroad tracks where they think he may have dropped them.
Payne shows us Woody’s face staring at the beautiful Midwestern landscapes they are driving through. We have no sense, though, that he is enraptured by the view. His face is blank, bereft of emotion. The trip has barely started when Woody gets drunk, gashes his head and has to be taken to hospital. His son therefore organises a detour to his home town, Hawthorne, where his relatives organise an impromptu family gathering in his honour.
Bob Nelson’s screenplay treads a delicate line between affection and caricature in its depiction of the Midwesterners. Woody’s relatives and old friends are venal and grotesque. When they begin to suspect he may really have won a fortune, they prey on him. There is one wonderful sequence in which Woody and his wife visit the local cemetery where many of their childhood friends are buried. Kate bad-mouths them all and claims that most of them propositioned her sexually. She even lifts her skirts to show her knickers to the gravestone of one of her deceased suitors. Whether or not she was attractive wasn’t the question. As we learn, “These boys grew up looking at the rear end of cows and pigs” and weren’t fussy about their partners.
Gradually, we begin to see Woody in a more sympathetic light. This is partly because of the details of his past (his experiences in the Korean war, his acts of generosity) that David uncovers as he spends time with the people who knew him long ago.
It helps, too, that Nebraska boasts such a memorable villain in the shape of Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Like Dern, Keach is an actor whose achievements are often overlooked. British audiences probably know him best for his role in TV’s Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer, Private Eye dramas – and from his short spell in Reading Jail. However, Keach was outstanding as the washed-up, alcoholic boxer in John Huston’s Fat City and is equally good here as the leering, creepy bully who pretends to welcome Woody to town but is only interested in his money.
Payne’s flair for comic observation is apparent throughout Nebraska. At one stage, we see Woody and all his male relatives watching American football. They’re all utterly still, utterly impassive. Their faces are as inexpressive as those of the Mount Rushmore statues Woody so dislikes. When they do speak, their conversation stretches little further than motor parts or back-handed compliments about Woody’s new-found wealth.
The harshness of the storytelling is undercut by the music, used in nostalgic and playful fashion throughout. Woody’s quest for his winnings initially seems utterly absurd. Then, we realise, it gives him a reason to live and his son an excuse to spend time with him. Nebraska may be a conventional story about an estranged child rediscovering his love for his ornery old father but there is no On Golden Pond-style mawkishness here.
The reason the film has such an emotional kick is precisely because its style is so pared down and austere.