Nebraska Movie Review

Featuring: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday, 20 Feb

Reviewers’ verdicts:
rolanstein: A beautifully written and performed dramedy, wryly funny in its bleak assessment of America’s small-town mid-west.
Karen: Beautifully rendered shmaltz.

Old-timer of few words Woody (Bruce Dern) receives a marketing letter with a million dollar prize enticement, which he misinterprets as notification that he has won. His family cannot convince him otherwise or dissuade him from the folly of travelling from their home in Montana to the marketing company’s office in Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his prize. Son Dave (Will Forte) finally offers to drive him, which opens the opportunity for a family reunion en route in the small town in which Woody and his wife (June Squibb) grew up. Word soon gets around among the long-term locals that Woody has returned a millionaire, which has a catalytic effect in exposing the duplicity and greed lurking beneath the sleepy and seemingly benign facade of the town. In coming up against his past, Woody’s sons discover surprising sides to their taciturn father.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Like the octogenarian lead character, Woody, and the decaying small town he hails from, this deceptively modest and frequently chuckleworthy little film has a lot more going on beneath its surface than meets the eye.

The always wonderful Bruce Dern thrives in his role as Woody, playing off the sparest of dialogue. When he speaks at all, it’s in gruff monosyllables wherever possible, giving nothing away. He’s a flawed character – an inveterate boozer and not much of a father or provider going by the constantly withering (and for the viewer, funny) assessments of his sharp-tongued and apparently long-suffering wife.

In refusing to budge from his stubborn and obviously mistaken belief that he has won a million bucks, he exasperates his family, two members of which advocate putting him to pasture in a nursing home. Only the protests of kindly son Dave save him.

While Woody doesn’t seem to have much going for him as a character, it’s a plus that he is not materialistically driven. When asked by his family what he would buy with a million dollars, the best he can come up with is a new pickup truck and a compressor to replace one he lent decades ago that was never returned. And against the odds, Dern makes him fascinating, vulnerable, endearing. For all his shortfalls, near-dementia and paucity of expression, he comes across as a tough but ailing old bird without a malevolent bone in his body, whose still waters run deeper than, well, a pothole in a country road.

Hidden aspects to his character are gradually revealed through the interactions of his wife and sons with home town locals from his past, the occasional illuminating grunt from Woody, and a superbly managed scene of great pathos in which barely articulated memories of some painfully harsh parenting are triggered during a visit to his now-derelict childhood home. These are unusual modes of characterisation, brilliantly executed.

Parallel with the unlayering of Woody’s character, but to starkly contrasting effect, the benignly hokey – some might say ‘quaint’ – façade of his sleepy, fading mid-west home town and its inhabitants is stripped away by degrees to reveal a dark side. As with any community, there are vipers nesting in its midst. Never the angel without the devil.

While Dern makes the movie his own, he is well supported. June Squibb has a lot of fun playing Woody’s wife. She’s a bit of a stock character of comedy: the shockingly irreverent and perpetually negative elderly matron who says the unsayable (even – actually, especially – about her deceased relatives as she walks among their headstones). With Squibb’s treatment, she’s a hoot.

As are Woody’s unemployed fat slob 30-something nephews (played by Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll, who you’d swear were brothers, if not twins). These oafs lounge around in dull silence watching TV until the subject of cars and time taken to drive from place A to place B comes up, whereupon they perk up, managing a hoonish boast or two before falling back into their somnolent state.

Sad-eyed Will Forte is terrific as Dave, who has inherited his father’s best (albeit deeply submerged) qualities of kindness and generosity – a case of generational evolution, if ever there was one. It is fittingly feel-good that Woody is the beneficiary of Dave’s compassionate nature.

The movie is filmed in black and white, which lends mood and enhances the anachronistic feel of the small mid-west town in which most of the action takes place. However, while the quality of the cinematography is never in doubt (notably, some strikingly elegant scene composition), it is debatable whether the black and white medium, which is best suited to interior settings, is fully exploited. I say not. The exterior shots of the Nebraskan countryside, in particular – and there are quite a few of them – seem a little the poorer for the absence of colour.

This is small bickies though. Otherwise, there is not much to fault about this hugely enjoyable flick. It’s a delight with bite. Highly recommended.

Review 2: (Karen)
Oh dear. Here’s another film that I really wanted to love, and couldn’t. What I thought was going to be a beautiful, character-driven, muted hero’s journey turned out to be a beautiful, somewhat snide, character-driven hero’s journey that reinforced outdated materialist values and ideas of manliness.

Let me unpack that. Nebraska is beautiful, there’s no doubt. The landscape of middle America is rendered in washy silvers and greys that perfectly evoke the frozen-in-time quality of the community our hero finds himself transported to. The exteriors, interiors and characters are exemplars of the American gothic: austere, simple, and kind of creepy.

“Transported to” is not quite right. David Grant (Will Forte) makes a conscious decision to drive his father Woody (Bruce Dern) from their home in Montana to Nebraska to claim a spurious million-dollar sweepstakes prize. He, his awful mother Kate (June Squibb) and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) all know that the marketing letter Woody has received from a generic publishing company is not going to deliver the promised million, but David is in a particular dead end: his girlfriend has departed, citing his indecision about their relationship, and his career in home-theatre audio sales is in the doldrums. Have you heard of “resting bitch-face”? Will Forte has resting sad-sack – or he’s a damn good actor. He looks defeated by life, but he’s both ready to make a change, and willing to put in an effort with his dad, who is doggedly striking out on foot daily – having relinquished his driver’s licence long ago because of his Alzheimer’s disease – to claim the money.

For David, the journey is a chance to honour his father’s autonomy, and maybe connect with him for the first time while chasing the dream. At this stage I was still quite hopeful about the film. It was clear that the brothers’ relationship with Woody had been far from ideal, and I imagined that the journey would enable a reconciliation of sorts. And it does, sort of. But the reconciliation and denouement are so sentimental and so mired in traditional materialistic values that I was sort of revolted!

Of course, along the way David acquires new knowledge, specifically about his father, which forces him to reevaluate what it means to be a man. The plot devices around this are quite amusing, but the folks encountered who deliver the knowledge are little more than cartoon characters held up for derision. It’s certainly easy to laugh at the piggish cousins whose only conversation is how long David took to drive from his place to theirs, and there’s lots of nonsense about manliness here around what kind of car a man might drive as well as how fast he drives it. It’s less easy to laugh about Kate, whose crudeness seems to surprise even her son, and which is in the service of humour only. Surely she could have been loquacious – in the service of exposition – without being so oddly repulsive. (Although there are a couple of scenes where Kate shines, with, variously, tenderness, shrewdness and loyalty.) And I was massively disappointed when at a pivotal moment, David appears to have discovered his mature manhood, but second-guesses himself with an action that can only perpetuate stupid ideas about how a man ought to behave. I wish I could be more explicit here.

Beautiful performances and beautiful cinematography are enhanced by a music score that adds a melancholy, elegiac tone that is completely at odds with a representation of the less admirable aspects of American life.

Those beautiful performances are worth watching: Bruce Dern as the damaged, dogged Korean War vet; Will Forte as the puzzled Everyman doing his best to be a good person; and the ensemble supporters, none of whom strikes a bum note.

But at the core, this is just more of the same old American manure.

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6 thoughts on “Nebraska Movie Review”

  1. Geez, again I wish I could have loved this film as much as you did. I kept on trying to like it, from the first moment when Dave walks in with his sad face and consciously puts on a cheery expression in order to deal with his dad – what a lovely thing that was! – but it really seemed mean-spirited at times. And the scene in the bar, when Dave confronts Ed Pegram: so disappointing!

    Maybe I’m just becoming a big old crankypants!

  2. I wouldn’t say I loved the film, Karen – but I did thoroughly enjoy it.

    I’m even more surprised by your response to Nebraska than to Tracks, but thinking about it, I suspect our contrasting assessments are a reflection of a very fundamental difference between us. ie: I think you’re very PC in some ways, and filter your perception of films through certain very strong personal values and convictions. Also, I think you have an expectation that film should promote those values, that filmmakers have a sort of moral responsibility to better society (in your terms!).

    I tend to be contrarian, and one way this expresses itself is in a tendency to be anti-PC. That sounds pretty dumb in a way, but it’s not as simplistic a stance as it may appear. I have my strong values and moral convictions as well, and these come out in some of my reviews and responses to film. eg: I HATED The Killer Inside Me because of the extreme violence – even worse, that is was misogynist in form. Haneke’s Funny Games is another that crossed the line in its violence for me. I thought it amounted to terrorising the viewer to no good end (and that’s the crucial point).

    BUT, I am not against extreme violence in film, as long as it serves an artistically justifiable function. This is what it all comes down to for me: does a film work in terms of its dramatic fundamentals? This overrides all other considerations for me.

    Take your comment: David appears to have discovered his mature manhood, but second-guesses himself with an action that can only perpetuate stupid ideas about how a man ought to behave.

    I know what you’re referring to, of course, but I couldn’t care less about whether that action perpetuates “stupid ideas” about appropriate male behaviour. I only care about whether the action was true to character in the circumstance, and feasible in terms of the narrative. And for me, it was. I would have felt like doing what David did, and plenty of guys would not just have felt like it, but would have gone ahead! Whether that is right or wrong, or sends a message that conflicts with my personal take on what constitutes manliness is irrelevant to me. But not so to you, I think?

    Along the same lines, what you saw as demeaning and mean-spirited, I accepted as a humorous send-up. Reinforcing stereotypes, maybe. But I couldn’t care less. The humour worked for me. Ditto Kate.

    I could go on, but I think my point is clear. In other words, yep, I do think you’re a bit of a crankypants and impose certain ideological/social/political expectations on films and filmmakers, which if not met, meet with your disapproval. I think art should be unrestrained by PCness.

    By contrast, as said, dramatic fundamentals override all else with me. And I think all qualities of humanity, from the basest to the most noble, should be grist for the artistic mill. I don’t think the artist is free of all social responsibility, but there should be freedom to delve and question, and to reflect back real-world behaviour and attitudes without obligation, necessarily, to contribute to the enlightenment or improvement of society.

    I really don’t think the film was reinforcing “outdated materialist values”. As I contended in my review, I didn’t see Woody as materialistic at all. And like it or not, being a Millionaire (well, that term has lost its meaning with inflation, but you know what I’m referring to) is still very much alive and well as a status symbol and something to aim for. Outdated? Unfortunately not!

    One more thang, dang it. Sentimentality is not necessarily a dirty word for me. I thought the ending of Nebraska was appropriate to its form (as opposed to formulaic) and general demeanour. It wasn’t mawkish, at least not IMO. So what’s wrong with that? Poor old Woody needed a bit of a break, and who more fitting than Dave to provide it?!


  3. I’m not at all sure whether it’s a good or a bad thing to be thought to hold values and opinions that are considered PC, because the term would generally encompass tolerance, pacifism, kindness to children and animals, etc, etc, and yet it is applied generally in a derogatory way! I’m not in any case going to take offence about that, and when you come across a fabulous film that promotes non-PC values, then do let me know.

    But let me please distinguish between the behaviour of characters in films/stories/TV shows etc, and the tone of such representation. When characters behave badly, we expect them to be punished. There are conventions about this. The murderer may not get caught, but will be made to suffer for the crime. Depictions of evil deeds are understood to be just that, and the viewer knows that the filmmaker does not endorse cruelty/murder/genocide or whatever is being shown. Okay, Dave does not participate in any kind of genocide, as you know – but storytellers of all kinds are creating culture just as much as they are depicting it, and a little moral responsibility would a) not go astray in this enterprise; and b) be acknowledged by many if not most of them. So yeah, lots of guys would want to do what Dave decided to do. I’m not sure that gentle Dave would have made that decision, actually, especially after his heroic (to my mind) face-down of Ed. Do you really think that old guys who humiliate other old guys ought to be dealt with the way Dave dealt with Ed?

    And yes, in fact I do believe that materialism is an outdated value at a time when overconsumption jeopardises not only our health but the survival of our species, along with all the rest of them. Except maybe cockroaches. I am not alone in believing this, and I think it’s a valid criticism when maturity, self-actualisation, and reconciliation between father and son are manifested in a gift of material goods – especially when one of those goods is also overtly representative of Dave supposedly growing a pair.

    Hey, I’m not entirely averse to sentimentality myself: at one stage I was hoping the million dollar prize would turn out to be real!

  4. Some spoilers here.

    I have to say I agree with Rolanstein’s review far more. This is an excellent film: funny, dark, sad. One disagreement with Rolanstein is that for me the black and white filming works just fine. Another is about the mother. She was indeed totally repellent, except for the moment she kisses Woody when he was in the hospital, but it makes very clear Woody made a bad choice when he married her. Though the scene with the woman at the newspaper is brief, it explains much that was going on with Woody as a young man: Why he was shut down and why he ended up married to someone so crass.

    Since I’m from a small town, I can attest that the residents of Hawthorne ring perfectly true.

    Woody isn’t being materialistic. It’s too late to relive his life so the million dollar is a shorthand. It’s something he can give his family instead of the emotional investment he should have made but was too shut down (and drunk) to provide. He does have compassion, as Rolanstein says, but his family had a hard time seeing it through the booze. And the truck he wants, it just represents the independence he used to have, the ability to go where he wants. The compressor represents all the ways Woody feels taken advantage of over the course of his life.

    The townspeople and relatives? Yes. They’re very materialistic.

    As to the movie being schmaltz? Woody’s near future is too bleak for me to read the film that way. His son tries to provide his father some dignity via the truck and the compressor, and does provide some by letting Woody drive through town. But that’s likely the last smattering of autonomy he’s going to have. He’s entering an increasingly dark landscape.

    Dave’s punching of Ed works ok for me. His other options were yelling at him or just walking away. He didn’t tell him off for a couple reasons. 1) A recognition that words would just be wasted. 2) Dave is his father’s son. He says more than his father but still has difficulty with discussing emotional topics. Especially in front of a group of people. The punch seems to me an unloading of built up frustration, not just with Ed but at everything that’s happened. Hitting an old guy isn’t the “right” thing to do, but I think it fits with where Dave was. He’s not going to make a speech and he’s too angry to just walk away.

    It isn’t the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, but it is excellent.

  5. Great to have your well-reasoned and thoughtful comments, Matt.

    I’m with you 100% in your comments on Woody not being materialistic, and in your interpretation of what being a millionaire actually means to him.

    One slight difference between us: I’m not sure who ended up with the worst end of the marriage stick between Kate and Woody! I don’t think either of them did too well!

    Your comments as a small-town person yourself on the residents of Hawthorne equate with my partner’s observations. I have not been to the States, so don’t have an opinion worth expressing. Must say, though, I don’t find it difficult to imagine that the small-towner characters that came in for comic-derisive treatment in the film might be lifted from real life examples. Of course, we’re only talking outward appearances.

    Would love to have more comments from you whenever we review a movie you’ve seen.


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