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Woody Grant has white hair, a cranky disposition and a stubbornness that just won't quit. When we meet him, he's being stopped by a highway patrolman as he's walking down the shoulder of a Montana interstate. His son David picks him up at the police station, and it turns out Woody was on an 850-mile stroll to Nebraska, to collect the million dollars promised to him in a letter.
David points out gently that the letter is an ad for magazine subscriptions, but he's no sooner got the older man back to his house then he gets a call from his mom: Woody has hit the road again.
As played by Bruce Dern in a performance you'll be hearing about at awards time, Woody may be slipping mentally, but he's still sharp in flashes. He also has a plain-spoken, scene-stealing wife (June Squibb), whom you might call a decent incentive for getting out of town.
The son you'd expect these two to produce — put-upon David, played with wary grace by Will Forte — decides a bit of bonding with a father he doesn't really know couldn't hurt. So they hop in his car, and soon they're passing through the town where Woody grew up, a place where the people look as weathered as the buildings, and where David discovers, despite much backslapping, that even friends can be harsh.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) shot Nebraska in black and white, a decision that gives the film's windswept landscapes a Last Picture Show meets Grapes of Wrath feel — and that makes those rugged faces seem as iconic as the ones on Mount Rushmore. (Which Woody dismisses when they drive by it, as looking unfinished.)
The filmmaker has crammed Nebraska with orneriness, humor, greed, Americana and performances so natural they seem like found objects — especially Dern's, which caps a career of character parts with a delicately nuanced character. I'm guessing the name he's been given in the film wasn't accidental. Woody Grant could have stepped straight out of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic. His story, too: crusty old coot from a dying farm town, looking for Meaning at the end of a life that may not have had one. (Recommended)