What is it about Nebraska — not the state but the idea of it — that prompts creative artists to strip everything down to the wall studs? Bruce Springsteen titled his darkest, sparest album after the place in 1982 and now comes Alexander Payne with “Nebraska,” a desolate comedy-drama about fathers, sons, life’s highways and missed off-ramps. It’s a movie that floods you with emotion when you least expect it.
The film, shot by Phedon Papamichael in a black-and-white palette that tends to the glow-y, infrared end of the spectrum, is a close cousin to Payne’s 2002 “About Schmidt,” which sent widower Jack Nicholson across the country in search of himself. The difference — and it’s crucial — is that the sojourner in “Nebraska” is uninterested in and probably incapable of, self-knowledge. It’s his son who connects the dots. If “Schmidt” was about the mysteries of one’s grown children (among other things), the new film mines a deeper ache, that of the child who looks at the father and hopes for answers to the riddle of himself.
The father, Woody Grant, is played by Bruce Dern in a performance that is being heralded as a grand comeback but is most remarkable for its ornery prairie minimalism. Woody’s an old Montana cuss who drinks too much and talks too little; all that’s keeping him from dying is a letter he receives stating he may have won a multimillion-dollar sweepstakes. It’s probably the kind of junk mail you and I throw out every other day, but Woody intends to go to Lincoln, Neb., to collect his winnings if he has to walk there.
His wife, Kate (June Squibb), has no time for this nonsense, and oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local TV weatherman hoping to make it to the news desk, wants to put the old man in assisted living. Younger son David (Will Forte) is more sympathetic and facing his own mid-life funk, with a girlfriend (Missy Doty) who has left him and a job in audio sales that’s going nowhere. Why not drive dad on a 900-mile fool’s errand?
The journey has a vast and weathered visual beauty, but David finds his efforts to get to know his father better rebuffed at every turn. “Why’d you even have us, Dad?” he asks at one point and is told, “I liked to screw and your mother was Catholic — you figure it out.” It’s not that Woody is hostile (although “Nebraska” is about disappointment on a very deep level). He’s just as taciturn and inverted as his American Gothic name; indeed, Woody Grant could be Grant Wood’s farmer at the end of a weary trek to the 21st century.
Dern’s performance is interior and scraped free of sentiment, and he gives the character an old man’s stagger. Watching him motivate from one side of a barroom to the other is an adventure in itself. Dean Martin’s ex-wife once said about the singer, “There’s either nothing under there or too much,” and that’s the sense we and David get here — that Woody’s his own koan. The real journey in “Nebraska” is the son’s coming to terms with what he’ll never get from his father and his growing acceptance of what he might give instead.
For all the deserved plaudits going to Dern, the film belongs more to Forte, which is a bit of a shock. The actor logged a productive eight years on “Saturday Night Live” without much to show for it beyond a big-screen “MacGruber,” but his face, with its large, soulful eyes and furrowed brow, always seemed to be on the verge of crumpling into tears. There’s an underlying sorrow about him that Forte uses here in subtle, sometimes wholly still ways.
David is the observer in “Nebraska” and an audience surrogate — he helps us sort out our feelings toward our own parents — but he’s also the one who makes things happen. He gets Woody down the road and off the highway for a visit with his extended clan, and he eventually gets Kate and Ross to join them. In an arid landscape where everyone’s stuck in the present or fixated on the near future, David’s the only person interested in the past.
The visit to Woody’s roots is the sort of karmic comic disaster Payne knows how to fashion, no matter that the script was written by Bob Nelson. The rest of the Grant men are small-minded small-town lumps, either thuggish (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as a pair of idiot cousins) or obsessed with cars and football. When word gets out of Woody’s “fortune,” he draws greedy rivals like Ed Pegram (a wily old Stacy Keach). At around this time, “Nebraska” drifts into caricature and easy potshots, and the meanness isn’t mitigated by the fact that Payne has lived in Nebraska for years and apparently loves the place.
Those scenes are saved by Squibb as the tart-tongued Kate, a woman who takes great delight in telling everyone off. (She played Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt,” but Payne lets her survive this time, and a good thing, too.) And “Nebraska” eventually heads back down the highway, gathering eerie emotional force when the family visits the Grant homestead. It’s now a tumble-down wreck — “this is about how your mother kept it,” Kate dryly observes — that in its own silences says everything we need to know about Woody’s.
“Nebraska” is about ghosts, then, and whether we can outrun them before death gets to us first. It’s about the American way of a quick million — or the promise thereof — and the consolation prizes we’re offered and accept. And it’s about a man driving his own car for three blocks. In other words, it’s the sort of movie that’s about nothing at all and everything that counts.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.