Its a long walk from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. anywhere between 850 and 902 miles, depending on which road you take. But thats the walk crusty and slightly addled Woody Grant has just set out on in the opening frames of Nebraska native Alexander Paynes newest film. Payne has been nominated numerous times for directing and writing awards from the folks at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and hes nabbed the scripting gold for The Descendants, Sideways and About Schmidt.

His name will likely be on those short lists again, but this time so will that of Bruce Dern, who, playing Woody, has gotten and delivered one of the best roles of his career. Woodys taking that walk to Nebraska to claim the million dollar prize he won in one of those magazine sweepstakes contests. He lost his drivers license due to excessive drinking, and no one not his wife, neither of his two sons is going to give him a ride. And since he wont listen to anyone thats trying to tell him the prize is bogus, he hits the highway on foot, only to be stopped immediately by the cops.

As Payne has done in all of his previous films (most of them set in Nebraska), he introduces us to his characters, then allows us to get inside their heads. Actually, much of that was done here by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson, and this is the first film Payne has directed that he hasnt also written. But its Payne that lets his actors know what he wants from them to get the story told and the characters understood, then steps back and lets them do it.

The business of the million dollars keeps coming up, and keeps pushing the plot along, but its the people that take the front seat here. Derns Woody is a man of few words, and probably always has been. Hes a retired auto mechanic, a nice guy whos always helped others and now, without much money, but seeing what he believes is a jackpot flashing in front of his eyes, he expects people to help him in return.

But his wife, Kate (June Squibb, who played Jack Nicholsons wife in About Schmidt), is at her wits end with him, and his sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte) have no idea what to do about dear old dad. Well, its really only David that would use that loving term on him. Kate is fed up with years of neglect (and lets not forget that drinking), and Ross is just too selfishly busy to have any concern about dads crazy ideas. Its David who sees that theres a problem and would like to help, even if the only way he can think to go about it is to give his dad a ride to where he wants to go.

So we get a road-trip movie, a father-son relationship movie, a husband-wife relationship movie, a pie-in-the-sky dreamer movie ... the list could go on. It also includes an examination of what happens when old friends, if they ever really were friends, are led to believe that someone in their group has stumbled onto some good fortune. So we also get the story of Woodys long ago rocky business relationship with the blustery Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and its not very pretty.

But the movie sure is, physically. Its shot in stark and stunning black and white, and Payne and his longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael use it in a remarkable manner, both to catch an other-worldly look at the western landscape and to give us subtly breathtaking close-up looks at a variety of faces.

Nebraska is a serious film about a dysfunctional family, the patriarch of which might be delusional. But the beauty of its script is that, at all the right moments, its sweet and touching and absolutely hilarious (thank you, June Squibb, for your comic timing). One of its nicest surprises is that its just as much Davids story as it is Woodys, and theyre both people to root for.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.


Written by Bob Nelson; directed by Alexander Payne

With Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

Rated R