“Nebraska” is the lowest grossing best-picture nominee.
In “Nebraska,” the brilliant small-budget dark comedy from Alexander Payne, an aging alcoholic receives a mass-mailed sweepstakes letter that he alone doesn’t realize is just a scammy way to sell magazines. Unable to drive and unable to be dissuaded, Woodrow Grant (a bedraggled Bruce Dern) sets out on foot from his home in Billings, Montana, to the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, figuring that you’d have to be nuts to trust the mail to deliver a million-dollar prize.
As his son David (Will Forte) repeatedly retrieves the wandering old man, he finally hits upon the idea to relent and lug him to Lincoln — to shut him up, if nothing else. What ensues is an exceedingly patient and tender portrait of their relationship and of the small Nebraska town where the father grew up. Shot in black and white, and given to long stares at the cold upper Plains, “Nebraska” is at once bleak, endearing, moral, funny and weird.
After sojourns to Hawaii (“The Descendants”) and California wine country (“Sideways”), Payne returns to the heartland setting of his “About Schmidt” and “Election” to drive, literally, at truths of the middle of America. The allegorical elements are hard to miss: Named for two presidents, and aiming for a city named for the finest among them, Woody travels from a Montana town that shares a name with financial demands. His little hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska — try to find it on a map. It doesn’t exist, but it does incidentally share its name with one of early America’s finest novelists, a romantic himself. And its description (about 750 miles from Billings, via South Dakota) puts it almost precisely at the real-life location of Grand Island, Nebraska. We’re at sea among the wheat.
The father and son arrive in Hawthorne to find old family doing small-town family things: watching television and drinking to balance cosmic boredom against the urge to make trouble. The stupor fades when Woody reveals that he has become a millionaire. The genial welcome becomes flattery and, as word spreads, a tense standoff over who owes whom what. Stacy Keach, wielding his menacing bulk and timbre, is terrific as a long-lost business partner bent on getting his share, while Woody’s flinty wife, played by a badgeresque June Squibb, almost steals the film as her husband’s most acerbic critic and everlasting champion.
These are unique characters, cut from rough cloth and allowed to reveal themselves in their own time — a gift of Payne’s direction, that his players may seem authentically crafted even as they surprise us throughout. Forte, the “Saturday Night Live” alum, is convincing and likeable enough as the stereo system salesman trying to connect with his old man. Dern, though, inhabits Woody as a true haunt, giving the impression of a documentary subject the film happened to find loose in the wilds of America. That he says so little only adds heft to every squawk and squeak at the back of his voice. The monochrome sets every corn silk strand of his mad-scientist hair against his black eyes. Woody is immune to reason, yet possessed of a logic that we come to know only slowly. His mission is bound to fail. But it is his, and for that, we must respect it. To Payne, this may in fact be the promise of America: that however grim our fate, there’s nobility in knowing (even if we must pretend) that it is of our own choosing.