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Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013

Nebraska

Bruce Dern finds his pot of gold as an old man on a mission

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Nebraska opens on a gray, wintry day, with dead grass poking through patches of snow, as an old man trudges on the shoulder of a highway. Each step is a hurdle for the old timer, until a police car pulls over and a friendly policeman escorts him to a hospital. Woody (Bruce Dern) may be enfeebled but is animated by fierce determination. He received a sweepstakes notice from a magazine clearinghouse, telling him he “may” have won $1 million—if he hits the lucky number. Woody overlooks the fine print. He believes he has won the million and insists on traveling from his home in Billings, Mont., to pick up the check in person from the clearinghouse office in Lincoln, Neb. If no one will drive him, he’ll walk.

Dern, a Hollywood veteran whose excellence has long been overlooked, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the grizzled, persistent old man. Nebraska is also an Oscar contender for director Alexander Payne, who has developed a track record for restless, on-the-move protagonists with About Schmidt and Sideways. Payne has become the master of making artful entertainment from painfully awkward, realistic scenarios. The screenplay by Bob Nelson is pitch perfect, mapping out a complicated family dynamic without confusion and offering a sympathetic yet testy portrait of an alcoholic elder at the edge of dementia.

On the surface, the irascible Woody isn’t an especially lovable grouch. His wife (June Squibb), still in charge of her faculties, mocks Woody’s desire to be a millionaire. “You should have thought of that years ago—and worked for it,” she snaps. Woody’s successful older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is bitter about his childhood and evokes the doctrine of dad’s “best interests” in a whisper campaign to put the old man in a nursing home. Woody’s younger son David (Will Forte of “Saturday Night Live”) isn’t so sure about those best interests. Maybe because his life had dead-ended in a failed romance and a sales job at a big-box store, he decides to humor Woody and drive him to Lincoln. Perhaps having a goal, no matter how quixotic, is the only reason for staying alive?

Nebraska is filmed in black and white, and in the earliest scenes the plain palette suggests nothing but bleakness—an impression heightened as David drives Woody through the empty country of the heartland with its open spaces and run-down towns. Gradually, the grays and blacks assume richer shades of mystery and poetry as the complexity of Woody’s seemingly simple life is revealed. A stopover in Hawthorn, Neb., Woody’s hometown, becomes his point of encounter with the past—his fraying extended family of selfish left-behind losers and old friends who were never really friends.

Nebraska’s screenplay refuses to surrender to Hollywood clichés about father-son road trips of discovery. Heartbreaking and heartwarming by turns, but infused with a sad whimsy and a sense of humor that prevents the tone from turning dark, Nebraska exudes the possibility of real life. Hard of hearing, infirm yet stubbornly persisting like a wormy old oak in a windstorm, Woody occasionally speaks better sense than anyone else—but not too often. Woody isn’t an easy man to get to know but, as David learns, the effort pays off.