Directed By: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, and Bob Odenkirk

Bruce Dern was not a lock for the role of Woody Grant in Nebraska.  Director Alexander Payne sought out several other talents prior to casting Dern in the role.  He reportedly went after his About Schmidt star Jack Nicholson.  Rumor has it that the notoriously picky screen legend turned him down.  Payne also sought out actor Gene Hackman.  The retired star called it a wrap after Welcome to Mooseport back in 2004 and hasn't done a thing since then.  Payne even sought out Robert Forster with whom he worked on The Descendants a couple of years ago.  None of these prospects worked out and we ended up with Dern.  While they each could have done magnificent work as Woody Grant, Bruce Dern makes the role his own in Nebraska.

Elderly man Woody Grant (Dern) has just received a letter from a publishing company stating that he's won a million dollars if he meets the million criteria they've laid out.  Actually believing this to be true and that he's hit the jackpot, Woody is ready to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his million bucks.  He wants to buy himself a truck and a compressor.  There's just one problem with this.  As Woody, a longtime alcoholic, has aged, he's become semi-coherent, and his family recognizes this.  He constantly bickers with his wife Kate (June Squibb), who is tired of taking care of him after all these years, especially now that he's gotten older.  Because he can't drive, Woody opts to walk hundreds of miles from Montana to Nebraska to claim his prize.

As Woody's walking down the road to make his way to Lincoln, his son David (Will Forte) picks him up.  Fully realizing that the million bucks is a hoax and going against the advice of his mother and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), David decides to let his father live out his fantasy for a little while and offers to drive him to Nebraska.  He figures that he won't have too many other opportune moments like this to spend some quality time with his dad.  After a couple of days on the road in this father-son road trip, David and Woody stop in Hawthorne, Woody's hometown.  There, they stay with some relatives and visit some of Woody's old friends.  Given that Woody has a love for beer and that David is a recovering alcoholic, they do the only thing they can in town and stop at a local bar one night.  There, Woody mistakenly blabs about his million bucks, the money he needs to realize he did not win.  With the town of Hawthorne abuzz with news about Woody's so-called good fortune, David must now try to keep the vultures from circling around his dad, especially Woody's old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

Filmed in black and white, Nebraska is a film that takes us on a tour through the heartland of America and the life and times of Woody Grant.  The creative choice to use black and white speaks volumes about Payne's vision and intent with this movie.  He's not focused on crafting some grand, elaborate piece of cinema with lots of bells and whistles.  He's focused on crafting a simple, intimate film that centers on its characters and their relationships with one another.  At the core of Nebraska, we have the father-son relationship between Woody and David.  With one a longtime alcoholic in denial and the other a recovering alcoholic, it's a tumultuous relationship to say the least.  What makes their relationship so fascinating is not the current state of affairs but David's exploration of his father's past as they travel through Hawthorne.  The choice by Payne to use black and white simplifies the film and accentuates this key relationship.

Alexander Payne's latest film is filled with colorful characters.  As our lead Woody, Bruce Dern gives a potent yet understated performance as this semi-coherent, frequently drunk old man high on the prospect of winning a million dollars.  Dern's walk and talk perfectly communicate Woody's state of mind and that he's not always there.  While I would have welcomed Nicholson or Hackman in the role, Dern makes it his own and etches his name into contention in the Best Actor race this year.  As Woody's feisty wife Kate, June Squibb takes the gloves off and verbally spars with just about every other cast member.  She's definitely a truth teller.  With her fierce, often hilarious, performance, she steals the spotlight just about every time she's on camera.  As their inquisitive sons David and Ross, Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) give solid performances.  Stacy Keach is also a familiar face on screen as the slippery Ed Pegram.

For me, the most potent part of the film is the final scene in which Woody and David drive through Hawthorne.  It's layered with a great deal of meaning as Woody says his goodbyes to friends and loved ones on his way back home.  What I saw as I watched this scene was not just a proud father-son moment.  I saw a man who didn't need a million dollars to be happy and had embraced the unfortunate reality of his unchanged financial picture.  I saw a man on his way out, whether it be mentally or physically, making one last round to say farewell to those friends and loved ones who helped make his life something special for him.  We end the film with this man of few words having a moment that's worth a thousand.  For a movie like Nebraska, this ending fits perfectly.

I can't say that I'm in love with Nebraska, but it is a fine film.  Alexander Payne does a great job as usual, and his cast is pitch perfect.  I must note, however, that there are some slow patches, especially given that we're watching a number of elderly individuals.  Nonetheless, I'm sure we'll all be hearing more about this one as the awards season continues.  Nebraska gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.