Over 50 years ago Bruce Dern entered college believing that he would become an Olympic sprinter, only to realize that too many other athletes were much faster. So he switched gears and took up acting. He was talented, and soon was pleased to be working with a famous director who humbled him with the prediction that he might eventually “make it big” in his late 60’s.
Refusing to become discouraged, the former sprinter began a steady marathon for the next 50 years, landing supporting and leading roles and earning the respect of his colleagues and fans. But at age 76, he still had not had the break he’d dreamed of and worried that perhaps it wouldn’t come at all. He was wrong.
When Dern read the script to Nebraska, he knew that his chance had finally arrived. The role of Woody Grant, an irritable old man who fools himself into believing a notice he receives stating that he’s won a $1 million sweepstake in a nearby state, was made for him. Dern was right—he was nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
The story, filmed in black and white and propelled by an acoustic guitar and fiddle soundtrack, opens with Woody trudging down a highway in Montana on a cold winter day, slowly pursued by a policeman who has come to take him back home. When his son arrives to claim him at the station, he says, “Dad – you didn’t win anything. It’s a complete scam. So you gotta stop this, ok?” Woody responds, “I’m runnin’ outta time.”
And the race begins. Woody is intractable in his determination to get to Nebraska and claim his prize. His wife Kate, played by the 84-year-old June Squibb, who also had acted all her life and had not “made it big” until this role, tries to dissuade him by her mockery and disgust. His older son also isn’t supportive. It is only his younger son David, played by Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte, who agrees to oblige his father and calls out sick to work so they can begin the long drive to Nebraska.
Woody and David head southeast in their Subaru against the scenic expanses of rural America, stopping in South Dakota where Woody indulges in his life-long weakness for drinking. When David declines his dad’s offer to join him in a beer, Woody taunts him to “Be somebody,” refusing to accept the responsibility for the pain that his alcoholism caused his family over the years. Afterwards, when he falls, splits open his head and loses and then finds his false teeth, he shows himself as being lost in life. The need intensifies to reach the $1 million, because Woody needs something tangible to prove his worth.
Next stop: Woody’s relatives’ house, where six nearly identical looking brothers sit stone-faced watching TV, and two overweight, undereducated cousins make ridiculous claims, such as driving 850 miles in eight hours, providing another example of people whose lives have gone nowhere.
Not surprisingly, the conflict deepens when Woody’s family members and former business partners pressure him to share his wealth, verbal and physical fights ensuing, all of which confuse but do not distract Woody. He insists on pressing ahead to his goal.
Now Woody’s wife Kate and older son Ross rejoin him, and after several comical scenes that depict Kate’s say-it-like-it-is, no-filter personality, we see that she also has not accomplished much, but doesn’t seem aware or concerned.
Finally, Woody reaches the tiny, unimpressive sweepstakes office, only to learn—no surprise—that he has not won the money. However, he is content to take a consolation prize, a hat that sadly says, “Prize Winner”. Woody trudges out and confesses that he desperately wanted to have something to leave to his sons. Also, a new truck, and the air compressor he had lent his partner years ago that was never returned.
Woody wants dignity and a reason to feel respected. The audience wants it for him too. When David trades in his car for a Ford pick-up, throws a brand new air compressor in the bed and then moves out of the driver’s seat to make room for his dad, we inhale, poised for the moment that it all comes together for Woody.
Woody lowers the driver’s side window as he motors down Main Street, while forcing his son down onto the floor and out of sight, proudly acknowledging the admiring gazes of his past girlfriend, his brother and his old business partner. Woody Grant is somebody. His friends know it, his son knows it, and he knows it.
He has won the race. Well done, Woody. Well done, Mr. Dern.