Oscar Wilde wrote, “Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” It might be the most succinct thematic summation of Nebraska, the wonderful new film from director Alexander Payne.
Payne has made a name for himself in recent years with films such as Sideways and The Descendants where the setting is as much a lead as any of the actors. He continues that tradition here where the rural spaces of Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska dominate the screen in stark black and white cinematography. There’s something quite refreshing these days about a film with a sense of place, and in that manner Nebraska recalls Mud from earlier this year.
We see most of these places via a road trip in a Subaru. There’s even discussion of how long it takes and how fast others could make it. But the film, much like a road trip, is much more about journey than destination. This one finds David (Will Forte) escorting his father Woody (Bruce Dern) to the titular state in hopes of claiming a million dollar jackpot. Whether they do become millionaires or not would be telling, but it won’t come as much of a surprise to hear it’s the McGuffin of the piece. This is a film about a father and son’s reckoning in the twilight years of the father.
Woody has been a hard drinking man most of his life, and if the background stopped there we’d have a classic tale of forgiving the father’s sins visited upon the son. Payne, however, is too smart for that. The script by Bob Nelson paints these characters in varying shades of gray that allows the entire family to be more than just caricatures and more than simply good or bad. We respect these people, even if we don’t always like them.
For Dern this is a career-defining role—the kind you can imagine twenty actors his age vying for and kicking themselves they missed out on it. Wonderfully Forte also does not disappoint, or Bob Odenkirk playing his brother. Nebraska should likely be remembered come Oscar time for Dern’s performance, but you shouldn’t wait until then. This is the kind of film that Hollywood used to do so well and seems to have forgotten. You shouldn’t—see it now.