‘Nebraska’ tells heartfelt tale straight from the heartland

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We first meet Woody Grant as he lurches, glassy-eyed and disheveled, along a desolate road in Billings, Mont. He is on his way, on foot and alone, to Lincoln, Neb., to claim the million-dollar sweepstakes prize he believes he has won after receiving a certificate in the mail.

Grant, played by Bruce Dern in a career-defying change of pace, is a senile alcoholic who served in the Korean War and, after coming home, became a deadbeat dad. Despite the fact that the sweepstakes is clearly a scam, Grant’s son, David (“Saturday Night Live” alumnus Will Forte), agrees to drive him to collect the prize in a final attempt to bond after a lifetime of distance between the two.

The scenic road trip makes a stop in Woody’s hometown, where dozens of relatives and opportunists come out of the woodwork to claim their slice of the fictional pie. “Nebraska” dispels the myth of the inherent goodness of the people of the American heartland and shows small-town America as a harsh and unforgiving geography on the brink of extinction.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also worked with director Alexander Payne on “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” captures the derelict landscape in black and white with a placid, unromantic gaze. The colorless images bring to mind Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Depression and give the film a sense of timelessness and a lived-in weariness. The country is not beautiful, but it’s where Payne’s characters live and die.

“I think Nebraska is a character in this movie,” Forte said to The Daily Californian. “But the relationships at the heart of this movie are so relatable that it could have been set anywhere. It just happens to be set in Nebraska. And that’s where (Payne) lives. He loves it with all his heart.”

Dern voiced the same sentiment, saying, “I think (the setting) is universal. Every country has the sinking Midwest in it at some point, whether it’s in the gulag or wherever the hell it is in any country … whatever the problems are, the dysfunction within a family is universal, country by country. You could show it in fucking Iceland. You could make it in Iceland.”

The beautiful honesty of “Nebraska” touches upon the delicate subjects of senility, the inescapable stasis of the working poor and the destructive impact of mental illness on relationships, primarily Woody’s alcoholism and how it denied his sons a close relationship with their father. Much like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Nebraska” looks at mental illness with a humanizing sense of humor that weaves the characters’ imperfections into the story without letting them become defining characteristics.

“You’re not aware of (balancing humor and sensitivity) and on working on them separately,” Dern said on the question of playing an alcoholic. “You’re aware of the scene that you’re doing and how it progresses throughout the movie, what went before … so all those relationships are built in. Your job is, then, to make it believable, to be aware that this is a funny scene or a clever scene, or this is a scene where I tell him I love him or he tells me he loves me. You just do the story, and the story’s on the page.”

Both Dern and Forte, as well as the rest of the impressive cast, succeed in this regard. Although writer Bob Nelson’s characters are overwhelmingly unendearing, by the end it is nearly impossible not to feel for Woody, the crotchety old grouch, and to sympathize with David, who has to watch the slow decline of both his father’s senses and of his homeland. The unhurried pace and the lack of visual stimulation make “Nebraska” a true test of patience, but the film’s payoff and the touching sense of familiarity make it well worth the wait.

Grace Lovio covers film. Contact her at [email protected].