“He just believes the stuff that people tell him.” This is how David Grant (Will Forte) explains his father, Woody (Bruce Dern). Woody’s pushing 80 and starting to lose himself a little at a time, prone to dizziness, forgetfulness, and obsession over little things and ideas that David tries to assure him aren’t real. This isn’t a new development for Woody, though. As Alexander Payne’s Nebraska makes clear — with the wonderfully slow, nuanced unpeeling you’d expect from great film and literature — Woody has spent his life going along with the world around him, freely giving a few bucks to a friend in need. But that going along also manifests itself as passivity, a bland acceptance of the facts in front of him instead of a striving to find something else. In one of the film’s many stark confessions, Woody tells David that he married David’s mother mainly because it seemed to be the best option at the time, and he reasoned he had to get married to somebody, so it might as well be her. So it’s not (just) that Woody believes the stuff that people tell him. He believes the stuff he tells himself. There’s no better or truer guide to the world for Woody than Woody, and when he sets his mind to an idea, there’s nothing to do to dissuade him.
Part of what makes the film so powerful is the way Payne and writer Bob Nelson (in his first feature screenplay) explore an inverse of that belief. If Woody believes the stuff people tell him, then David suffers because nobody believes what he says. Specifically, Woody gets a piece of junk mail telling him he’s won a sweepstakes prize of $1 million, but David’s consistently unable to convince Woody’s grasping extended family that the money is an illusion. Woody’s growing dementia barely registers with the broader, clan, either. They simply choose to believe the story because of what it could mean for them. Woody, David, and everyone else spends the film walking those intersecting ruts of denial and conviction.
That flimsy piece of junk mail is what sets the story in motion. Woody and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), live in Billings, Montana, as do David and Woody’s other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk). The letter, though, says that Woody needs to visit the company’s office in Nebraska to claim his “prize,” so Woody starts walking. After a few false starts (he’s stopped by police on the highway, and later by David when Woody’s walking through town), David offers to drive Woody to Nebraska as a way to humor him, give him a change of scenery, and try to get in something that passes for quality time with an ailing father who’s beginning to check out of relationships that were never good to begin with. Their road trip stumbles through a few detours, including a prolonged stop in the small town of Woody’s youth for an impromptu reunion with his brother and extended family.
There’s an American familiarity to much of Nebraska: the bristling, rangy confrontations between fathers and sons; the sense of spending your life reckoning with your past; the way love can harden into resentment or soften into compassion; how highways become the threads that tie our stories together and let us give the illusion of structure to stories that don’t really have them. These things are found in hundreds of films and novels, but they don’t lose any potency simply because they’re common. Instead, they raise their own questions: Why are these the things we — as storytellers and audiences — keep returning to?
One answer: because they’re what we have at hand. Nebraska is a film haunted by family, time, and memory, and it explores those everyday subjects with everyday tools. The road trip, the hospital, the awkward reunion. Payne captures these scenes with direct, flat, unadorned style, even going so far as to make the whole thing black and white to make things feel even plainer. It’s not a gorgeous or roomy black and white, either. It’s mostly shades of gray, washed-out skies and ugly cars, giving you the feeling of traveling great distances but somehow never getting anywhere. Payne’s focus here is absolute, and he strips away every ounce of fat or distraction to focus on the bruised relationships of a family coming to grips with its patriarch’s decline. Nelson’s script is steeped in little moments that play out in cookie-cutter houses and bland apartments, and his subtle observations are a perfect fit for Payne’s style, which is never sharper than when it’s vivisecting people that look and act just like us. By zeroing in on specific people and telling their story with the things we recognize from our own lives, Payne creates an utterly real, completely engrossing film that feels not so much created as unveiled. It’s as if the curtains lifted on the world in front of us.
The film would be nothing without its performances, either. Dern is just about perfect here. Part of the film’s great deception is the notion that Woody is just a cantankerous old man, a one-note riff on grumpy aging, but Dern’s able to capture so much the man’s hidden heart with a few looks or the inflection he gives his lines. Woody’s more present, and more comfortable with his choices and actions, than most of the others realize. When Woody and his family pay a visit one afternoon to the abandoned farm where he grew up, David asks if Woody ever wanted to be a farmer. “I don’t remember,” Woody replies, adding, “It doesn’t matter.” There’s a resignation in the moment, and a battle between regret and acceptance, and a tension between an old man who’s close to dying and a son who’s looking for a way to make sense of his own life. Who else do we turn to when we make these decisions but the people who came before us? What does it mean when we learn they’re as clueless as we are? Forte provides a wonderful balance in this and so many other moments, at once open and exhausted, willing to do the work he feels he needs to do but worn down by all the choices he has to make. It’s all too common for comedians cast in dramatic roles to lapse, however briefly, into the modes that made them famous, but Payne brings Forte into a safe space and lets him be a wondering, wandering son trying to figure out what it means to do right by his father. He’s comfortable simply existing as David, and his own journey of discovery (of himself, and of Woody) never feels broad or forced. It’s just honest.
Nebraska is a study in contradictions — between denial and belief, between love and codependence — and that extends to its emotional makeup. It’s a film that embraces despair while also suggesting ways through it, and that looks death in the eye while trying to account for the rocky beauty of the life that leads up to it. It works toward a sense of understanding. Woody’s odyssey might be groundless, and David might know, and Woody might even know he knows, but maybe, the film suggests, that’s the best we can do for each other. Belief and denial are so strong, maybe the strongest things we have. We know of people only what we pretend to know, and finding out the truth — you aren’t a millionaire; your relationship is over; your parents lived whole lives before you came — can throw us off axis. So we find brief moments to live the version of our story we’ve told others, and we give our family the chance to become the people they’ve tried to tell us they are. We all have questions we know can’t be answered, and not because we don’t know the answers, but because we can’t bear to say them. Here, silence is enough.