Across the wide, bleak expanse of Nebraska Alexander Payne cuts two charcoal figures — Will Forte and Bruce Dern. Nebraska is a name that stands alone. It’s the name of one of Bruce Springsteen’s best albums and it’s now the name of one of Alexander Payne’s best films.
As Woody Grant prepares to check out for good, he is driven by the singular goal of cashing in on a Publisher’s Clearing House letter that promises, “You have won $1,000,000!” His wife (the shrill and effective June Squibb) can’t handle him anymore so she calls upon her younger, compassionate son David (Will Forte) to come and take care of the old man. David agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in on the hope of a lifetime’s dream.
David isn’t a son who’s determined to change his father, get some last-chance validation from him, or argue with him over his ruinous alcoholism. It’s not that kind of story. They are past all that. All David wants now is to help his father chase what remains of his dignity. Payne almost got there with About Schmidt, which was about a retiree with too much time to contemplate his place in the universe, but Woody is far beyond contemplation. He is simply trying to make sense of the full day.
As they close in on the ugly truth that companies lie to millions of Americans every day, forever dangling the bait of the American dream, father and son settle upon an understanding of who they once were to each other and what they’ve now become. Woody’s complicated past emerges belly-up when they hit his hometown. Everyone there thinks he’s struck it rich so those he owes money to come out of the woodwork. Little by little, a man’s whole life in a small mid-western town is colored in. At the tail-end of that life it seems that all Woody’s got left is a wife who can barely tolerate him, two sons still trying to wriggle out from under his shadow, and a simple dream that never materialized. In a town like this it’s all the more humbling when a man’s dream might amount to no more than a brand new truck.