Nebraska Movie Review – 2013 – Film Dispenser

Film December 9, 2013 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

Dern’s Performance and a Script with a Sense of Humor Make “Nebraska” One of the Best Films of the Year

I’ll admit going in that I’m an Alexander Payne fanboy. From Election (1999) to The Descendants (2011), he has made a sequence of films populated by real people who live in worlds that are keenly observed and almost always ring true. He never goes out of his way to make a point, but his themes emerge seamlessly from the interaction of his characters. His latest directorial effort, Nebraska, is no different and provides one of the more satisfying cinematic experiences of 2013.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) lives in Montana. He receives a notice in the mail that he’s won a million dollars from a magazine-marketing sweepstakes, and he can claim his prize in Lincoln, Nebraska. He ignores the fine print in the sweepstakes notice stating he “may have won” and heads out the door to Lincoln to claim his prize. On foot.

As Woody reaches the outskirts of town, a sheriff’s deputy stops him, concerned that a confused elderly man is walking on the highway. Woody’s son, Grant (Will Forte) goes to the sheriff’s department to pick up his father and returns him to the cantankerous care of his mother, Kate (June Squibb). The next day Kate contacts Grant at work to tell him that his father is gone. The dutiful son finds his father who is once again legging it down the highway to Lincoln to claim his prize.

Grant decides the only way to bring the matter to a safe conclusion and purge this obsession from Woody’s mind is to take him to Lincoln so he can see for himself that the sweepstakes is nothing but a scam. Along the way, Woody has a medical mishap that requires him to postpone his Million Dollar Quest for a few days, and the father and son find themselves forced into an impromptu family reunion in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska.

The remainder of the film could have been a predictable father-son road trip of bonding over untold tales from Woody’s past, providing a justification for the distance in their relationship. While the two men do in fact bump into old acquaintances, male and female, from Woody’s past, and Grant learns a thing or two about his father that brings the man into better focus, the story beats are never quite what you expect. There are liberal doses of humor about small town life, petty family politics, and the gaping divides between people who only associate with one another because common blood runs through their veins.

Nebraska never fails to find the humor in a situation, though I wouldn’t call it a comedy. The film is populated with character types you are bound to recognize. The laughs result from how sharply the supporting cast is rendered, and the familiarity of their motivations and conduct. It is not a cast of caricatures. We’re not laughing at them, but rather the universal truths that Alexander Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson mine from their words and actions.

[During a recent Filmspotting podcast, Chicago critics Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen suggested that Payne might be mercilessly poking fun at his characters for whom he has no genuine respect, and the film somewhat borders on satire with the way these characters are presented. Despite my enduring love for that podcast, I find the comment a bit classist, as if the simple lives of these characters, honestly depicted, are inherently ridiculous, thus the director’s tone must be one of ridicule. My own family comes from hearty mid-West farm stock, and I’ve sat in many a living room with characters just like the ones that populate the screen in Nebraska. Get out of the big city every now and then, fellas! And I’m looking forward to your next show.]

Bruce Dern gives an unapologetic performance as Woody. Just as you feel some sympathy for his plight, he is certain to do something that will make Woody less appealing. Woody is who he is, and Dern does not feel obligated to make him endearing or ingratiate him to the audience. By the end of the film, our judgment of Woody has changed because we understand the man better than the initial enigma we are confronted with, not because Woody undergoes any outward change along the way.

June Squibb as Kate Grant creates one of the most memorable supporting female characters of 2013. As the blunt matriarch of the family, she dominates her every scene. If not for Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Squibb could have found herself clearing some mantle space for a Golden Globe or Academy Award. Squibb’s part is not nearly as showy, but you will remember her character vividly when you leave the theater.

Along with film and television criticism, one of my greatest passions is music, and I couldn’t help thinking of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album, “Nebraska”, as I watched this film. It is filled with stark songs about the dreams and failings of the often unemployed and always underappreciated disenfranchised blue collar segment of society. The music is the audio equivalent of the black and white images that fill the screen during this film. The album concludes with this line: “At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.” This film is about Woody Grant’s reason to believe, and it’s worth experiencing.

Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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