By ZACH ZAHOS
You can’t stop him. The old man hoofs it up the highway shoulder, against the traffic flow. He studies his feet and ignores his white, battered hair, just as he has every day for a couple decades now. He’s not walking for exercise, nor does he look like he’s having a bit of fun. As we soon learn, he’s off to claim a million dollars. But he’s not a millionaire, just a dupe: He fell for one of those mail order sweepstakes. He can’t be that gullible, can he? He’s going senile, yeah, but still, what gives? What drives Woody Grant? Such are the deceptively simple questions in Nebraska, another plainspoken masterpiece directed by Alexander Payne.
It is difficult to summarize Nebraska because it is so easy. Not a whole lot happens. Woody (Bruce Dern) insists he won, but he’s not one to stay put and argue. Rather, he just leaves, by foot, trudging from Billings, Montana with full intent on reaching Nebraska, where the letter promises him money. Woody’s firecracker of a wife, Kate (June Squibb), pegs his misconception on old age and life-long alcoholism. Their son, David (SNL’s Will Forte), agrees, though for some reason he also agrees to humor his old man, firing up the Subaru for a two-man road trip to fetch the money he knows is not there. Perhaps David needs a change after losing his girlfriend, working in a listless electronics store and watching his older brother, Ross (Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk), climb the ranks to anchor the prestigious local Billings newscast. Maybe he just wants to get close to his father. Who knows.
These characters keep their motivations close to their chests. But don’t blame screenwriter Bob Nelson for doing a bad job. If anything, sing his praises. He has written one of the greatest scripts in years, the kind of story critics bemoan we never see in America anymore, to say nothing of Middle America. Again, how to describe? Well, Nelson wrote an … extremely unpretentious art film. Each scene breathes, letting characters live, drink beers, ignore their wives, look off into space, before carrying over, by virtue of classical Hollywood cause-and-effect, to the next scene. Yes, yes, Nebraska has a conflict, a climax, a three-act structure, all that jazz. There is order. But unlike less organic comedy-dramas, like this summer’s The Way Way Back (written by the Oscar-winning pair who collaborated with Payne on The Descendants, which had its forced moments, too), not one moment feels obligated to push the plot forward or, better yet, unearned. Nebraska unfolds like life, as we know it: with time, with memories, with unplanned hilarity.
Like any film of this sort set in the Midwest, like Fargo, The Straight Story or Payne’s own About Schmidt, we often laugh when the characters don’t. Nelson, Payne and we find the pauses in these people’s conversations funny, precisely because the characters don’t. There are laughs to be had in a world unafraid of taking things slow, allowing silence, ignoring “awkwardness.” Contrary to some critics’ conclusions that Payne (an Omaha native) looks down at Midwesterners, I find this film to be an appreciation of their lives … with some reservations. Two nephews of Woody’s turn out to be brainless, boring bullies, begging comparisons to Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. (The look on their faces when David corrects their epithet that Kia is not a “Jap” car but a Korean one is priceless.) The true, albeit minor, antagonist, is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who seeks to siphon some of Woody’s fake prize money in order to settle scores from decades prior. Everyone but Woody sees through Ed’s fake smile at once, particularly Kate, who takes on her enemies with simultaneously shocking and adorable profanity. If anything, Payne loves the release — the f-bomb, the punch. No matter where you live, B.S. is B.S., and it cannot stand.
But these are good people, really. Despite his reputation for black comedy, Payne sees the good in humanity and struggles to do it justice. Shot in black-and-white by Phedon Papamichael and gifted a wonderful bluegrass score by Mark Orton, Nebraska evokes the deserted, timeless quality of the American pastoral. Those who live there must work to do so, and through work manifests greatness. We recognize that David can do so much more than hock speakers in a strip mall, and he recognizes it, too. Woody once flirted with legend — injured Korean War vet, young entrepreneur — before settling on the bottle and fooling around. Even with their personal failings, which are accurate representations of most of us, they live on intuition. David grimaces at Woody’s confession that he and Kate never talked about having kids or what marriage means to them. But then, in a beautiful scene, David watches his mother berate Woody, lying in a hospital bed (not a spoiler, for he’s a clumsy old man), before planting a big kiss on his forehead. Some things don’t need to be explained; they just are, eternally so.
That last line sums up Nebraska, for me at least. I could continue picking apart scenes or applauding Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte’s performances, all three of whom you can expect Oscar to notice. Yet there’s a quality to this film I don’t want to tarnish through too much scrutiny. It’s not its pathos or humor, though those are alive and well, but more its ease of empathy. I see myself in all of the characters — even the dummy nephews who brag about how fast they can haul it from Nebraska to Texas. These people are more alike than they are different, and they could all do better at this life thing. Nebraska welcomes our late-act attempts at redemption while acknowledging that we never realize them, at least in the way we expect. We better ourselves through the effort, fueled by delusions as we hike along the interstate.