When we first meet Woody he’s walking to Lincoln, Nebraska from Billings, Montana. There’s erasable and then there’s Woody, a cantankerous man who thinks the “You may already be a winner” notification he received in the mail is a ticket to a fortune. But at the rate he’s going it will take him months, if not years to make the journey to claim his prize in person in a city two states away. “I’m going to Lincoln if it is the last thing I do,” he says.
After several failed attempts to hoof it to Lincoln, Woody’s son David (former “SNL” star Will Forte) offers to drive him. He knows the ticket is of no value but sees the trip as a way of spending some time with his father.
As father and son travel across flyover country, through landscape as weathered as Woody’s face, David pieces together fragments of his father’s life to form a fully developed picture of who the man he calls Dad really is. The trip is both physical and emotional.
“Nebraska” is a plain spoken but lyrical black-and-white film about a man grasping at a last chance for a legacy and a son who understands the ticket is worth more than money, it is the thing that gives Woody something to live for.
Sounds serious, and its ideas about how children interact with their aging, ill parents certainly have weight to them, but director Alexander “Sideways” Payne ensures the film is nimble and very funny in places.
The humour doesn’t come in the set-up-punch-line format but arises out of the situations. A scene of Woody’s gathered family—his elderly brothers and grown sons—watching a football game redefines the word taciturn but the subject of the sparse conversation, a 1974 Buick, is bang on, hilarious and will likely sound familiar to anyone with a large family.
Dern hits all the right notes, adopting the blank stare of a man overwhelmed by life for most of the movie. It’s a simple but effective performance in which Dern strips away almost all the artifice and presents a raw, unfiltered take on aging.
Dern shares virtually all his scenes with Will Forte. On the surface Forte’s casting is a strange choice. He’s best known as a comedian and while he has the odd funny line in “Nebraska,” he is primarily required to do much of the dramatic heavy lifting. It took me some time to divorce his most famous character, MacGruber, from what I was seeing on screen but soon enough his straightforward performance drew me in.
Supporting actors are carefully cast. Stacy Keach, who does a mean Elvis Karaoke, is suitably menacing as a former business partner who tries to cash in on Woody’s alleged new wealth and Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as thick-headed cousins Bart and Cole will make you long for the heyday of Beavis and Butthead.
Near the end of “Nebraska” there is one shot that sums up the reflective feel of the film. Peg (Angela McEwan), one of Woody’s ex-girlfriends, sees him in town for the first time in decades. They don’t speak, but the wistful look that blossoms across her rugged face perfectly visualizes the movie’s contemplative examination of a life lived.