It isn’t supposed to go like this. A modestly budgeted road movie, shot entirely in black and white, set in Middle America and featuring a lead just shy of 78, is not the recipe for your typical Hollywood movie. In a year when your average Hollywood movie can cost north of $200 million (I’m looking at you, “Lone Ranger”) and your marketing budget cost just as much, Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” feels downright transgressive in its simplicity.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, who after believing he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, sets off to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his winnings. Along for the ride is his son, David (Will Forte), who knows full well that the prize money is a scam.
After back-to-back Oscar wins for his last two films and providing Oscar nominations and critical acclaim for leading men Jack Nicholson and George Clooney, Payne has quickly become the go-to guy for meaningful and thoughtful movies that highlight flawed yet very humane characters.
When the script fell into Will Forte’s lap, he knew it was a role that he had to chase. “When I read it, I thought it was wonderful and felt this weird connection to the character and I thought never in a million years will I get this part, but what the heck?” Will Forte said about the initial casting process.
After landing the role, he was just thrilled to be part of the process, even if it meant shooting the film in black and white. “Make it in black and white, make it in all white, all black. Make it in purples. I’m just so excited to be working with Alexander Payne,” Forte added.
Star Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his role, also had nothing but praise for his director. “People come to Hollywood now wanting to work for Alexander Payne,” Dern said. “He casts you, which he feels is 80 percent of his job. The other 20 percent he makes the movie with the people he knows are the characters, so you have the freedom within the framework to develop what you want.”
It’s that freedom that allows both actors to turn in performances that are both vanity-free and heartbreaking to watch with critics singling out Will Forte’s first dramatic role as “revelatory.”
But it is Bruce Dern, in a career that spans more than 50 years and many iconic roles, who firmly steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park. It’s a role that Dern clearly relished, saying that the film contained one of his favorite lines of any movie that he had ever been in. In one of the film’s final set pieces Woody Grant and his family visit his childhood home — the site of Grant’s younger brother’s death. “You remember that, Dad?” asks his son. Instead of an answer you probably have heard before, Woody simply says, “I was there.”
“That’s big stuff,” Dern said.
“Nebraska” is in select theaters now and will expand in the coming weeks.