Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-rate: ‘Nebraska’: Finding the Exceptional Within the Ordinary

BY Ian Kane TIMEApril 4, 2022 PRINT

There are quite a few movies that deal with aging and/or dealing with terminal illnesses, and living the last years of life to the fullest. These include little indie gems such as 2019’s “Edie” to big-budget Hollywood fare of “The Bucket List” from 2008. However, fewer of these feature relatable, ordinary folks from the heartland—people who could easily live down the street in Smalltown, USA. After all, most U.S. citizens don’t live in the big cities.

Director Alexander Payne’s 2013-produced film (released in 2014) “Nebraska” perfectly fills that void. It showcases regular people dealing with life and death, along with plenty of drama and humor—just like in real life.

Bruce Dern plays curmudgeonly old Korean War Vet Woody Grant, who is in the beginning stages of dementia. His deteriorating mental state is exacerbated by his fondness for alcohol.

We first meet Woody as he’s shuffling along a highway leading out of Billings, Montana, where he lives. Due to his rumpled appearance, a cop pulls over and brings him back to the town’s local police station.

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(R–L) Son David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) receive some choice parting words by wife and mother Kate (June Squibb) before departing on their road trip, in “Nebraska.” (Paramount Vantage)

Soon, his son David (Will Forte) shows up to take him back home. That’s when Woody first apprizes him of a crumpled up document in his pocket. He hands it over to David and tells his son that he’s the winner of a million-dollar sweepstakes. When David informs him that it’s all just a mail scam used to con people into buying newspaper subscriptions, Woody stubbornly insists that he’s won the money.

When David takes Woody back home to his wife Kate (June Squibb), she wastes no time launching into some scathing verbal assaults aimed square at her husband. It soon becomes apparent that Woody’s flights from home are increasing in frequency. She tells David that Woody would be better off if they put him in a nursing home.

David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is likewise fed up with Woody’s transient ways and troublesome temperament, and also wants their father in a home. But David says “Dad just wants something to live for. That’s all this is about.”

It’s here that we learn that Ross’ career as a TV newsman is taking off, while David’s gig as a stereo salesman contributes to his angst.

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The starkly beautiful landscape of Smalltown, USA is prominently featured, in “Nebraska.” (Paramount Vantage)

So when Woody asks David to take him to a town in Nebraska to claim his million-dollar reward, the latter agrees. After all, he doesn’t have much going on in Billings and could use a few days away from his humdrum existence. He also sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with his father since their relationship isn’t exactly cozy.

Father and son pack into the latter’s Subaru station wagon and, after a few last verbal lashes from Kate, take off on their trip to the neighboring state. During their road trip, we glean insights into Woody and David’s relationship through down-to-earth dialogue about their familial history, revelations, and deadpan humor.

When the two finally arrive at their destination, a small town in Nebraska—the family’s original hometown—all sorts of oddball characters come out of the woodwork. As former rivals, relatives, and friends alike begin to emerge from the dusty past, it becomes clear that many are just interested in Woody’s supposed newfound wealth, including Woody’s brazen former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

Fortunately, the rest of the family eventually trickles in from Billings to join Woody and David and back them up—from there the movie takes a turn into more hopeful pastures (no pun intended) as they begin their healing journey together.

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Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, L) with Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach) in “Nebraska.” (Paramount Vantage)

Easy on the Eyes and Soul

Something that really stands out is the film’s deft usage of black and white cinematography. The rolling hills and sprawling fields of both Montana and Nebraska are captured with utmost skill, particularly the stark natural beauty of Billings, Montana with its patches of snow and quaint roadside motels, hardware stores, bars, and other small businesses.

The film’s narrative is also straightforward; you never feel like you’re being emotionally manipulated. This is partially due to the script’s believable dialogue, but it’s also due to the earthy performances by its outstanding cast. Both Dern and Keach stand out here as, respectively, a cranky old-timer with an interesting past, and a charismatic schemer. And June Squibb is hilarious as the cantankerous wife of Dern’s character.

Speaking of Squibb, she is the perfect example of how director Payne gives his characters depth, as opposed to making them caricatures. Although she initially seems constantly at odds with her husband, deep down she loves him in her own way. Later in the story she ferociously goes to his defense and it’s a scene worth seeing the entire film for.

“Nebraska” is easy on the eyes and soul. It’s a redemptive and often humorous tale that shows it’s never too late to heal a fractured family.

‘Nebraska’
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 13, 2013
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane

 

Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
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