Playing as the Journey Gala at the 57th Annual BFI London Film Festival, in association with American Express, Nebraska is the latest slice of Americana from the brilliant Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways and Election). It may not be vintage Payne but it features a couple of brilliant performances, particularly one from Bruce Dern that deservedly won him the Best Actor prize in Cannes in May.
Dern plays Woody Grant, a cantankerous septuagenarian who receives an item of junk mail through the post informing him that he's won one million dollars. All he has to do to claim his prize is travel from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his winnings in person and inform the senders which magazines he's decided to subscribe to.
Despite protestation from his wife, Kate (June Squibb) and his two sons David (Saturday Night Live's Will Forte) and Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman from TV's Breaking Bad), Woody insists on travelling to Lincoln to claim his prize. David, partly to humour his old man but also seeing an opportunity to spend some time with him, agrees to drive the pair of them. An enforced detour in Woody's former home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska brings Woody back in to contact with a number of family and friends who he'd happily forgotten. Once the town of Hawthorne learns of Woody's imminent fortune, he becomes the talk of the town.
Payne, as he always does, expertly details the quirks and idiosyncrasies of small-town America and along with screenwriter Bob Nelson gently teases out the humour and pathos in a series of forlorn situations. Although Woody is a man of few words, Dern manages to convey the sadness of Woody's situation. He's also ably supported by Stacy Keach, as a former friend and colleague who has is eyes set on a portion of Woody's winnings. There's also a firecracker performance from 83-year-old June Squibb. As Kate, she's had her fill of Woody's grumpiness and almost steals every scene she's in.
It's deliberately slow paced, which may be off-putting for some and Forte may struggle to hold his own with the stellar performances around him but Payne has delivered another original and bittersweet tale of small-town American life.