“I ain’t fiddlin’ with no cow titties. I’m a city girl!” — Kate
Nebraska (2013) is a comedy-drama written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne. It tells the story of a elderly alcoholic man who roadtrips with his remote son from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Nebraska received six Academy Award nominations.
The film is striking from the very beginning as it’s in black and white. The lack of color is conducive to the relationship between Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte): not just black and white. While the film is generally about their trip to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize, the the film is ultimately about a son who doesn’t understand his father but has always wanted to. Woody has always been a callous and stoic man, and he never connected with David or his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Similarly, David never reached out to his father, until now. He continually learns more and more about his father, both good and bad, but it brings him understanding and endearment towards his father.
Nebraska, like August: Osage County, tackles the theme of family dysfunction. In the latter, it resulted in violent and hyperbolic drama. In Nebraska, the family dynamics are muted yet poignant. After Woody takes a spill after a night drinking, David coordinates with his mother Kate (June Squibb) to meet in Hawthorne, Nebraska — Woody’s hometown. David and Woody stay at Woody’s older brother’s (Rance Howard) house. It’s fascinating to watch the relationships in the family: ambivalent, banal, and forced. The family dynamics are of comfortable silence. There isn’t anything meaningful about their familial relationship; it just is — which is starkly contrasted when the family believes Woody to truly be a millionaire; their memories suddenly recall outstanding debts that a rich Woody could now conveniently repay. Their family dysfunction is mundanity until money and greed enter the picture.
Bruce Dern gives a subtle and impressive performance as the increasingly decrepit old man, Woody. He is completely believable as a man who is not altogether there. Everything from his waddling shuffle to his blank stares are wholly convincing of the ailing character. Dern mixes together a character with both a sweet, endearing side and a rough, weathered side. As David learns more about his father, he learns that he was in the Korean War and was consequently greatly affected when he returned home. Dern portrays a man with the wealth of the world on his shoulders, who, at first glance, foolishly attempts to claim his million-dollar prize but truly wants to leave his children with something from him. He is a man of regret, a man of simplicity, and a man of unexpected drive — all of which Dern expertly delivers in his Academy Award nominated performance.
Will Forte is charming and compelling in an unexpected role for him. Payne, in reference to casting Forte, said that “[Forte] is capable of communicating a certain wide-eyed quality toward life and also damage — like he’s been damaged somehow, somewhere.” Forte, from his fantastic career in comedy, is capable of morphing into several different characters, but he rises to a whole new level as the sweet and respectful David. He knows that his father is on a fool’s errand, but he puts his life on hold and pushes his feelings aside to be there for his father. He’s always wanted to connect with his father, and over the course of the film, he does. Forte sensitively expresses the many aspects of David, from the compressed annoyance at his father to the tender hesitance at the thought of ruining his father’s delusion. He acts as his father’s protector, even against his mother. Forte delivers a heartfelt performance, and I hope to see him in more roles like this.
June Squibb is a scene-stealer. She plays the abrasive and outspoken wife to Woody, who has to deal with his alcoholism and deteriorating faculties. Deserving of the Academy Award nomination, Squibb is the comedy in this comedy-drama. Although an elderly woman, she speaks about sex without reservation. In a fantastic scene where she, Woody, and David are looking upon the graves of relatives past away, which is expected to be somber and reflective, Kate calls out all the deceased who either wanted in her pants or were “whores” or “sluts”, which shocks David. She even flashes one of the tombstones, showing off what that man missed out on. While she gives Woody a hard time, when she has to, she comes to his aid. When family members are demanding money for old (and most likely fake) debts, she puts her foot down and tells them all to fuck themselves. Squibb is a comedic genius and delivers her insults with ferocity and satisfaction.
Nebraska is a striking film about the American extended family. It’s a bleak and colorless view, yet heartwarming when a son steps up to connect with his father and bring him comfort. Full of incredible performances and stunning comedy, Nebraska is a scrutinizing look at the American family: poignantly showing that life is all shades of grey.