Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an elderly resident of Billings, Montana. When we first see Woody, he's walking (lumbering might be a more accurate verb) down the street on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a million dollars. Woody doesn't realize that the letter he received claiming he's just won a million is a scam to get him to purchase magazine subscriptions. But he's determined to get there.
What happens after these initial opening shots is a slow burn, but a fascinating one. Payne very quietly reflects (with beautiful black-and-white photography) on hopes and dreams, growing old with (and sometimes without) dignity, family, friends, the things that drive us and the moments from our pasts that refuse to let us go. All of this accumulates in a way that is neither pedantic nor heavy-handed, thanks to an excellent script and a wonderful cast, featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Dern.
I won't tell you any more about the plot, other than it's marvelous. Again, you might feel differently about the film. Maybe the reason it works for me is that it resonates and hits so close to home: I know what it's like taking care of a parent living with difficult/challenging circumstances. I also am just beginning to see and feel the accumulation of years on my own mind and body. It can be scary. Even when you have a strong faith, you start to realize things are changing and there's not much you can do about it. You also start to think about unrealized dreams and wonder why you haven't done anything about them. And sometimes you just have to laugh at the way things have turned out.
There are plenty of times when you're watching a movie and can see how it's going to end. Fewer are the times when it works. Fewer still the times when it's perfect. Nebraska reaches a point at the end that's so perfect, that was so joyful and beautiful that I literally said to the screen, "That's it, end it right there." And Payne did just that.
Several weeks ago Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. He's nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, but he won't win. Nebraska probably won't win any of the other five Oscars it's nominated for (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress for June Squibb, screenplay, and cinematography). Says Payne in an interview by Bob Fischbach, "There are a lot of titans of film out there this year. 'Gravity' is a miracle, and 'American Hustle' and 'Wolf of Wall Street' are these grand, complex, intricate films. 'Nebraska' is a bit more modest in scale. But it keeps being included in the conversation, and that's very nice."
Nebraska may not win the million-dollar sweepstakes, but it's definitely a treasure worth seeing.