Friday, November 22, 2013
Elderly Billings, Montana, resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he has won a million dollars. So fervently does he believe this that, when we first meet him, he has set off on foot for Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim sweepstakes money promised by the form letter in his coat pocket. It’s not clear whether Woody’s mind has gone due to age or decades of unrepentant drinking or whether he’s simply delusional. He refuses to recognize the scam and repeats his quixotic attempts to the exasperation of brash wife Kate (June Squibb) and oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who still harbors resentment over years of paternal indifference. Younger son David (Will Forte), stuck selling stereo systems and recently separated from his live-in girlfriend, reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln to “get out of Billings for a while” and in the hope that Woody will then “shut up” about the money. The odyssey takes them across the flat, barren terrain of the Midwest, with Phedon Papamichael’s black and white camerawork underscoring the stark, unforgiving landscape. En route they stop in Woody’s hometown, Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit family, and there David gets some insight into his taciturn father’s life in the recollections of a former girlfriend and his one-time partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), among others, until news of the prodigal son’s impending “riches” sours the reunion. Director Alexander Payne’s films routinely (and wryly) observe the foibles of flawed, misguided folk and have been accused (not entirely without justification) of being misanthropic. Thanks to Bob Nelson’s shrewdly observed and often funny screenplay, Payne transcends his tendency to condescend and displays a genuine tenderness for most of the characters. The acting is exceptional. Squibb is explosive as the lioness protecting her pride, Keach uses charming menace to mark his meager territory, and Forte moves subtly between frustration and compassion. But Dern turns the nearly mute Woody into the role of a lifetime. We see a world of regret in his eyes and root for redemption, however small. When it comes, it is surprising and supremely satisfying.