“Nebraska,” playing this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, leads moviegoers on a mythical excursion through the Great Plains of America, guided by a crusty, half-demented old coot named Woody Grant who’s convinced he’s won a million dollars. Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody is sure to win him an Oscar nomination.
Using black and white film stock, director Alexander Payne drains the color and drabs down the beauty of the broad, rolling hills and flatlands between Montana — where Woody starts his journey — and Nebraska, where he ends up in hopes of collecting his money. Welcome to middle-America’s world of losers, left behind by the nation’s rush to reward the rich. It’s a place that’s stuck in the past, stalled by economic woes and heartless agricultural industrialization. Inhabited mostly by old folks, by definition losers who have seen their best days pass, they seem to exist disengaged from life and community.
We first meet Woody as he stumbles along the side of an Interstate with a gait like a zombie, on his way to collect his cash. Indeed he acts half dead much of the time, and so do many of the other characters in “Nebraska.” Fortunately, the director keeps us recognizing and laughing at Woody’s and their quirks. The truth is, unless we’re professional athletes, movie stars, rock singers, or millionaires, we’re losers by definition in American culture. Or so suggests “Nebraska.”
What keeps Woody going is his determination to collect that million dollars he imagines he’s won. All he has to do is get himself to Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska. Woody’s family knows the pot of gold waiting in Lincoln is a scam. His spunky, tart-tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) is almost ready to wash her hands of her ornery, alcoholic spouse who refuses to give up the belief that he is a winner.
Woody’s son David, played by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Will Forte with a deeply moving sense of compassion, humors his dad. When he can’t shake Woody’s determination to collect the illusory prize, David takes time off from his dead-end job selling sound systems and drives him to Lincoln.
Woody’s conviction that he’s a winner is what powers this movie and turns him into a latter-day, if unlikely, hero. It turns out that all Woody really wants is a new truck, an air compressor his business partner swiped years ago, and some cash to leave to David and his brother Ross — the kind of cockeyed longings we all share at some level.
Along the way to Lincoln, Woody and David reconnect with family members and old friends. They’re all ready to believe in the million-dollar scam, especially if it means they can get a piece of it. Particularly scurrilous are Woody’s former business partner, Ed Pegram, played with an oily gleam in his eye by Stacy Keach; and David’s cousins Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray) represent a younger generation as comically nasty and derelict as imaginable.
“Nebraska” turns over the rock of American culture and exposes some pretty unpleasant truths about the American emphasis on youth, on winners and losers, and on the illusion that money fixes anything. As Woody shows us, we can’t all be rich and famous, but that doesn’t mean we’re losers.
Playing this post-Christmas weekend in rotation with “Nebraska” is “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench. On Tuesday, Dec. 31, the Film Center will host a New Year’s Eve celebration with food, drinks, music and live TV coverage of Times Square, and a screening of the film classic, “After the Thin Man.”
“Nebraska,” Thursday, Dec. 26, and Saturday, Dec. 28, 7:30 pm; Friday, Dec. 27, and Sunday, Dec. 29, 4 pm; M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 ages 14 and under. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.