And perhaps only Bruce Dern could inhabit the character of Woody Grant — the alcoholic, cantankerous, cotton-haired lead character of this alternately sad and funny picaresque. Much like the pitchfork-wielding stoic in his reverse namesake’s most famous painting, Woody is something of a cipher, his speech rarely veering from taciturn responses like “Guess so” and “I suppose.” But as “Nebraska” unfolds — when Woody enlists his son David (Will Forte) to help him collect the million-dollar prize money promised to him in a sweepstakes form letter — the traumas and tiny heartbreaks of Woody’s life emerge, drip by drip, like the condensation on the glass of buttermilk he sips late at night in the kitchen, alone.
In many ways, “Nebraska” hews to the classic buddy road-picture, with the mismatched Woody and Dave setting forth on a journey of mishaps, chance encounters, hilarious high jinks and — of course — filial bonding. But thanks to Bob Nelson’s lean, tone-perfect script and Payne’s tender execution, “Nebraska” never feels patronizing or facile. Sure, it’s hilarious when Woody and Dave arrive in Woody’s depressed home town of Hawthorne and Dave immediately endures a mocking interchange with his two huge, corn-fed cousins about how long it took him to drive from Montana. Later, Payne and longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael film Woody, Dave and their relatives as a human still life of resignation, a tableau of eight white guys sitting around talking about cars, staring at an unseen television and watching the game.
These moments inject welcome notes of deadpan levity, but they never devolve into ridicule: Payne has filmed “Nebraska” in wide-screen black and white, lending the prairies, blighted main streets and faded taverns an artful, gelatin-print air of pastoral stillness. When Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), arrives on the scene, the mood loosens considerably — she’s a foul-mouthed, sharp-tongued battle-axe who skates dangerously close to the caricature of the Swearin’ Grandma. Luckily, Nelson and Payne seem always to know instinctively when to pull back and change course, either sending Woody and Dave to another stop along their odyssey or soothing the waters by introducing an artifact or figure from Woody’s past, like a former business partner played by Stacey Keach, or Angela McEwan’s newspaper editor who is, true to the actress’s name, angelic.
It’s Squibb’s Kate, with her brutally frank pronouncements and ribald gossipy asides, who’s the scene-stealer of “Nebraska.” And Forte, best known as a comic actor from “Saturday Night Live,” makes an impressively restrained dramatic debut as a man who’s equally longing to connect and reflexively wary. (Bob Odenkirk, lately of “Breaking Bad,” plays Dave’s anchorman brother, Ross.)
For all of its superb supporting performances, though, “Nebraska” is Dern’s movie, and he carries it with a sure-footed authority and focus utterly belied by Woody’s own knock-kneed hobble and abstracted, spaced-out demeanor. As the reasons for his sadness and self-medication come to light, it becomes clear that, rather than being cut off from his feelings, Woody is channeling them through his quixotic quest, which becomes his last-ditch attempt at expressing hope, desire and — perhaps most important — long-buried generosity. Dern lets that realization seep in slowly, never forcing the audience to love him, never indulging in the plays for affection and sympathy that an actor of his skill and experience know inside out.
In other words, he has the guts to let Woody be Woody, and to allow us to come to him, or not. As Woody himself might put it, “Doesn’t matter.” At 76, Dern finally gets to be the leading man he’s long deserved to be, filling “Nebraska’s” wide open spaces with a performance of subtlety, bittersweetness and surpassing emotional courage. And he’s created a character every bit as iconic as his painterly alter-ego, one who eloquently embodies the anxieties, thwarted aspirations and stubborn tenacity of a rural middle class facing inexorable decline. He’s made an “American Gothic” for 21st-century, post-recession America. Who needs a pitchfork anyway, when you can have an ice cold bottle of Bud?
R. At area theaters. Contains some profanity.