Woody Grant has won $1m on the sweepstakes – all he has to do is collect his winnings from Nebraska. This calls for a road trip, with Woody’s son David begrudgingly taking his ornery old man on this beautifully written and sensitively acted trip down memory lane.
Of course Woody hasn’t won a thing – it’s a scam. Everyone in the family knows this except (and perhaps including) Woody. But as with all road trips, Nebraska’s destination is but a means to justify the journey: the road is all. En route to collecting Woody’s Nebraskan bounty the father and son stop off in Woody’s hometown to catch up with old enemy Ed Pegram and an entire brood of taciturn Grants, each of whom have designs upon Woody’s dollars. And so what began as the frivolous humouring of a delusional old man ends up bringing a fractious family together in siege defence of their oft-bemoaned but ultimately beloved father.
And what a family it is, headed by foul-mouthed materfamilias Kate – a crude and more than adequate match for cantankerous old coot Woody. The two are forever bickering but make a superb match, each undercutting sentimentality with a pithy putdown, one-liner or – in Kate’s case – the casual flash of knickers to a gravestone.
That David seems to care more for his slipshod father than his constant, if eccentric, mother reeks of a deep-seated patriarchal mindset that is really the only missed beat in Nebraska.
Bob Nelson’s screenplay is beautifully understated with humour coming from, among other places, mistaken air-compressor theft, Tweedledum/Tweedledee cousins and Woody’s feigned deafness. Such comedic minimalism trusts in the performances of a talented cast, and director Alexander Payne has assembled a very strong cast indeed in Bruce Dern (Woody), Will Forte (David) and June Squibb (Kate). Dern even picked up the Best Actor gong at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but Squibb’s turn is an absolute show-stealer – the kind of crass, unblushing but fiercely loyal Granny everyone wants in their corner.
Humour is seldom far away in Nebraska, but neither is pathos; the two play off against each other in sumptuous monochrome cinematography that imbues the entire piece with an unfussy grace. This pleasantly nostalgic tone delicately presents a world of ageing grumps stuck in their ways who will soon be no more. More’s the pity, because it’s a pleasure spending time with all of them.
Nebraska is released in the UK on 6th December 2013.
Watch the trailer to Nebraska here: