Director Alexander Payne tackles his native Nebraska in this character study that is part road trip movie, part father-son drama. Honestly, I never knew much about Bruce Dern, but at well over 70, I think it is safe to say he gave one of his great performances as Woody Grant. In this story he is convinced that he has won a million dollars. It’s not a scam to buy magazine subscriptions like everyone seems to tell him. Including his weary, but good-natured son David (Will Forte). Woody’s ornery wife Kate is fed up with his behavior. He’s feeble, absent-minded, and not as sharp as he used to be. In fact, David and his older Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are thinking of putting their dad in an old person home sometime soon.
However, Woody is bent on getting that money, even if he has to walk all the way to Lincoln Nebraska, from Billings Montana where he lives. It’s utterly ludicrous and everyone knows it except Woody. But instead of fighting it, David sees it as a chance to spend some quality time with his dad away from his job in an electronics store. So the two of them set off to Nebraska to spend time with Woody’s family in his old stomping grounds.
Now Woody’s not much of a talker similar to his brothers (including Rance Howard), however, David and the audience soon come to realize that despite a rough exterior and alcohol problems, he really is a kind man. He’s a giver. That’s evident whether it was his family or his former partner, the opportunistic Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Because when all of these folks catch wind of the money, Woody becomes somewhat of a local celebrity and no one will believe that it’s not the case. They think it’s simply a dodge to avoid sharing the wealth.
Really most of the townspeople are petty, opportunistic, folks looking to gain from somebody else’s good fortune. However, it also revealed the shallowness of some, who were quick to ridicule when the money turned out not to be real. This film made me appreciate my own family in the Midwest and some of the more good-natured characters did strike a cord with me. There’s something so attractive about a community that remains so close-knit with each other over the years. I can never have the experiences of my grandparents. Even if I manage to be married for 50 or 60 years, I can never have that wonderful small town feel of returning to my roots and seeing all my classmates from bygone years. Although sometimes I suppose it can be a blessing and a curse, because in small towns people will talk and that’s not always conducive to quality relationships.
That’s why when David lets his dad ride through town in front of all his old friends, it is such a poignant moment, because he gifts his father one final moment of freedom to relish in front of his friends. All he got was a stupid hat that reads “Prize Winner,” but his son sold his car to allow his father to live out his dream one last time.
Because if you strip it down and take out all the white noise, this is a father and son film. It’s beautifully stark at moments with its modern black & white visuals. Yet it still has intimate scenes between father and son, that sometimes are incredibly sad, but also have a shard of hope attached to them. It took reading several other articles to latch onto the fact that this is seemingly Payne’s nod to the great Japanese director Ozu. Or at least he shares a lot of the same issues in this film and in some respects very similar pacing. It’s not some high speed action flick, but it cares about deeper issues and reality. This is not California, but Nebraska, and still relationships are universal. They look a shade or two different wherever you go, but never lose that personal meaning. It breaks through time and place, to speak to each of us on a personal level. Honor your father and mothers, because those relationships have great value even when they are a struggle.