Maybe there’s something in the title “Nebraska” that spurs artists to go for a spare, unadorned feel — whether it’s Bruce Springsteen’s landmark 1982 album or this heartfelt movie in which director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) pays homage to his home state.
Payne shot his “Nebraska” in black and white, capturing with stark beauty the flat farmlands, cloud-streaked skies and run-down rural towns. Against that backdrop, Payne and rookie screenwriter Bob Nelson place a simply stated but emotionally knotted story of a father and son.
The father is Woody (Bruce Dern), who’s irascible, alcoholic and sometimes not altogether there. In this case, “there” is Billings, Mont., where he lives with his no-bull wife Kate (June Squibb), who yells at him for being lazy — and for clinging to the belief that he’s won a million dollars from one of those magazine-subscription sweepstakes scams.
Caught in another attempt to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Neb., where the sweepstakes’ headquarters is located, Woody and Kate’s younger son David (Will Forte) decides to humor his father. David, over the objections of Kate and his TV-reporter brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), takes time off his job selling stereos to drive Woody to Lincoln, to let the old man learn once and for all that he’s not winning a million.
The trip gets complicated, when a visit to a tavern leads Woody to a fall that lands him in the emergency room. David decides to let Woody rest for a few days, so they stop in the small town of Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up. Woody meets up with his brothers, who are as taciturn as he is, and with his former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach), who’s still nursing some old grudges. And when Woody blabs that he’s won a million dollars, the whole town wants a piece.
It’s here where Payne comes as close as he’s ever done to making a Coen brothers movie. In all his movies — besides “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” he’s made “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “About Schmidt” — Payne gets right up to the line between empathizing with his characters and mocking them, but here he crosses that line a time or two in depicting Hawthorne’s greedy townsfolk and some of Woody’s none-too-bright relations.
Thankfully, with the main characters, Payne exercises much more empathy, and has a cast that can deliver it. Dern gives a career-summation performance, capturing Woody’s gruff attitude and underlying naivete. Forte, best known for his work on “Saturday Night Live,” shows an unexpected dramatic side as the well-meaning David. And Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt,” steals the show as Kate, Woody’s blunt-talking, long-suffering wife. The three make “Nebraska” a road trip worth taking.
A father and son take a road trip, with plenty of baggage in the back seat, in this moving comedy-drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for some language.
Running time • 115 minutes.