"Nebraska," shot in widescreen black and white, is a work of filmmaking art — pure, close to the bone, poetry. It's a surprising and unexpected work, one that iterates that film, in its stark and spare form, can capture the human condition with touching preciseness, a mix of both humor (so dry it crackles) and melancholy (absent even a hint of sentimentality or condescension).
The film opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), aging codger, walking along an interstate, his posture a question mark, his hands deep in his jacket pockets, determination written in the deep lines of his weathered, unshaven face.
He is on his way from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., where he intends on collecting a $1 million sweepstakes prize.
Stopped by the police, his son, David (Will Forte), is called and takes Woody home. Along the way, the old man explains that he has received in the mail a notification that he has won $1 million and all he has to do is arrive at sweepstakes' headquarters to collect. He insists that since he can't drive, he'll darned well walk if necessary.
David, after arguing with his mother, Kate (June Squibb), in her own way more taciturn and blunt than Woody, decides he'll take a few days off work and drive Woody to Lincoln. Kate thinks they've both lost their minds.
And so they make what turns out to be a remarkable journey together, stopping off in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., where they spend time with Woody's brothers, their wives, and Kate (who arrives by bus). The stay evolves into some of the funniest and most honest vignettes of the film, all of which resonate without relying, even for a moment, on caricature.
Word immediately spreads in Hawthorne that Woody, the newly minted prodigal son, has returned home a millionaire. How this affects many in town who knew him as a young man constructs a tableau of Heartland America that is priceless. Most of these down-home folks are lost in a desert of small talk that reveals a penetrating stoicism, their moments together as flat as the Nebraska plains. It's all wonderful.
What David finally figures out, after spending days with Woody, is that his dream of winning the lottery is likely his last dream, his final hope coming at the end of a life that is filled with broken dreams, alcoholism, disappointment, all compounded by war experiences in Korea that have never been articulated (and misunderstood by David).
Woody's life is distilled in Hawthorne, where he and David are reminded of what might have been but never was.
Dern's portrayal — not to mention the brilliance of Squibb, who steals scene after scene — is astonishing. His is a sublime character study of a man who has lived most of his life engaged in an internal monologue, much of which he has rarely shared with anyone else. When David asks him about the early period when he first met Kate, wanting to know if he wasn't in love then, Woody, taking a long sip of beer, says, laconically, "Never came up." Like the entire film, that moment captures what is a near-perfect narrative, filled with people who are so local, so natural, it would seem that the filmmakers trolled the streets of Hawthorne and selected individuals from cafes and bus stops, asking only that they be themselves.
There are mountains of truth in "Nebraska" — truths that will reveal themselves after you have left the theater. And the harbinger of most of those truths, when push comes to shove, is Dern. For decades, he has made a fine living in Hollywood, dating back to 1960, offering up portrayals of borderline psychopaths and quirky, off-center supporting characters. He was, after all, the man who killed Robert Redford in "The Great Gatsby."
But in "Nebraska," he is pure gold as simply an aging man who takes one step and then the next toward a goal that barely defines his true purpose and who he is at this moment in his life.
A footnote: This is a film to be seen on the big screen. Don't let it slip away, thinking that it will suffice to view it later on DVD. It won't.