Bruce Dern gives an all time performance in Nebraska, the story of an old man who is looking for a reason to live, and settles on a Publisher’s Clearinghouse style giveaway as his obsession. It’s a slow, black and white character piece, and exactly what we’ve come to expect from filmmaker Alexander Payne.

The Players:

  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Screenwriters: Bob Nelson
  • Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
  • Cinematography by: Phedon Papamichael
  • Original Music by: Mark Orton

The Plot:

Woody Grant (Dern) wants to get his million dollars, promised by a phony-looking giveaway, so he decides to walk all the way to Nebraska. His son David (Forte) is called in to deal with it, and so eventually he decides to drive his father there, even though his mother Kate (Squibb) and brother Ross (Odenkirk) think it’s a terrible idea. But before Woody can go to Lincoln, Nebraska, they stop in the small Nebraskan town where Woody grew up. It’s there that David learns more about his father, who he was, as the town and his family hear about the money and starts wanting things from Woody.

The Good:

  • Performances: As to be expected, Bruce Dern is excellent in the movie, but he’s matched by Forte, who gives a great performance as the young, slightly more put upon son who really does love his father and wants the best for him. It’s not to say the material is out of Forte’s wheelhouse so much as we’ve never seen him given this sort of challenge before. The two are our main characters, and both are fascinating to watch.
  • June Squibb: But there’s no getting around that though the film is loaded with talented comedians and performers, Squibb’s salty mother steals the show in one setpiece at a cemetery. It’s sad to think this may not lead to other roles, but Squibb wins the movie (and the audience) in a couple of scenes. Her arc is also great as we see how her relationship with Woody not only functions, but why it’s so functional, even if they come across as dysfunctional.
  • Black and White: The photography in the film, even if it was captured digitally, is spectacular, with the midwest landscapes perfectly captured in Payne’s widescreen vision. The film is unimaginable in color, frankly it probably wouldn’t work that way.
  • Angela McEwan: Playing the small town Nebraska reporter, McEwan is an actress you may have never heard of before, but she gives a heartbreaking performance as a woman who Woody once loved, and now that he’s in town again, gets to think about the lives that could have been.

The Questionable:

  • Payne’s World: Alexander Payne went from a more rock ‘n’ roll approach to films, with movies like Citizen Ruth and Election, films that were razor sharp and smart and pointed and truthful, to a series of movies that are best described as Oscar bait. And it’s not that these are bad films, but they often have the faintest whiff of bullsh– to them. Nebraska, because it’s anchored by Dern, and because it’s in black and white, doesn’t have the problems that were apparent in The Descendents, but there is a question here if he believes it, and whether or not this is the only way to accept such a horrid trope as a foul-mouthed elderly person. Everything works in context, and he achieves maximum effect, but there’s also a level that I don’t know if this is the sort of movie he loves. It doesn’t have the feel of great passion. It’s just a really good movie.


Though it may not make our top ten (or twenty) of the year, Nebraska is a pretty great film with scores of excellent performances. But it does feel like an Oscar picture, a prestige picture.

Rating: 8.5/10

Nebraska opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 15, and will expand shortly thereafter.