77 year-old Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a quiet and ragged man in the definite twilight of his life. As his sister-in-law points out, the Grant men were never big talkers anyhow.
But when Woody receives a letter from a magazine company telling him that he’s won a million dollars, he becomes determined to get to Nebraska and pick up his winnings, even if it means he has to walk all the way.
His wife and two adult sons are perfectly aware that the letter is a scam designed to sell magazine but Woody refuses to listen to them and badgers his youngest, David (Will Forte) into driving him 900 miles and across 2 state borders. Along the way they stop for a few days in their hometown, the one they left decades ago. Meeting up with long-lost cousins and neighbours, David starts learning things about his distant father and the reasons they left so many years ago.
Dern gives an enigmatic performance here and as an audience, we’re never sure if Woody behaves the way he does because of his stubborn nature or whether it’s a sign of dementia. As his son David, Forte is a revelation as dramatic actor – his performance is only a few small steps away from some of his more subdued comic characters. He joins an ever-growing club of comics who are showing deftness with serious material.
Bob Odenkirk could very well join him in that club as well. The Mr Show and Breaking Bad star has ditched his cocky douchebag persona as Woody’s older son, a local news anchor. A lesser film would have made him an antagonist-of-sorts to Woody and David but the few scenes of the family coming together for lunch and a visit to their old house proves the film’s emotional high point.
But the thing we really appreciated about Nebraska is the fact that it isn’t a sugar-coated look at old age. It’s not Calendar Girls or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: they aren’t labouring under the cloying premise that all old people should learn to feel young again. In the real world, aging can be a terrifying prospect and any victories that Woody gains along the way are small but that doesn’t make it any less poignant.
Though it marks the first time he has directed a film for which he’s not received a writing credit, Nebraska has all of Alexander Payne’s tonal hallmarks. It’s a funny, soulful road movie with a melancholic edge and it fits perfectly into his unblemished body of work.
Nebraska is in cinemas 6 December