In the opening of Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, aging Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) limps with surly determination along the shoulder of a snow-framed Montana highway. Woody hopes to walk to Nebraska with a million dollar claim for a magazine sweepstakes that he received in the mail. Shot in a beautiful black and white elegiac style, this new film raises the existential question: "In the game of life, what does winning mean?"
The story revolves around a marketing notice that states Woody has won a million dollars. Although everyone in his family says it's only a magazine marketing scheme and not real, Woody refuses to believe it's a ruse. His youngest son David (Will Forte) ends up taking him on an auto odyssey from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his reward. They traverse snow-covered landscapes, and briefly take a look at the American heroes pantheon on Mount Rushmore. On the car trip, they are waylaid in Hawthorne, NE - Woody's small hometown; they stay with one of Woody's brothers. A spontaneous family reunion of sorts evolves, as more of Woody's brothers come to Hawthorne, as well as Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) and oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) who trek in from Billings.
The rest of the story revolves around how Woody is perceived in his hometown connected to winning a million dollars, and if he will be able to continue the trip to try to claim his "prize." Old debts arise in Hawthorne for the Grant family, emotional and financial, some real, some opportunistic. To say there's a family-related mugging at a physical and psychological level is an understatement.
In the end, it is David who learns what the money would truly mean to his father, as a crowning achievement in his life and why. The Woody/David pairing as a father/son dual protagonist throughout most of the film delivers a definite "senex/puer" perspective. Woody is a "senex" figure as an ornery Saturnine character in his final years. James Hillman, in the essay "Senex and Puer" in the Puer Papers writes: "Saturn is at once archetypal image for wise old man, solitary sage...and for the Old King, that castrating castrated ogre...At the same time that he is the father of all he consumes all..."(16).
David is established as a "puer aeturnus," a Peter Pan type, in Acts One and Two: his girlfriend Noel (Missy Doty) leaves him because he can't commit to marriage. In that scene, we learn David can't even keep up with watering plants. David's job is selling home entertainment equipment; his older brother Ross is more settled, as he's married, has a family, and works as a TV news anchor. David is not very committed to his sales position, either, as he calls in sick for many days to drive his father to Lincoln. In Act Two, David asks a lot of questions about his parents' past, finding answers to why they got married, and gets a look, along with Ross and his mother, at the old house Woody grew up in. In Nebraska, David investigates the Grant Family myth and in doing so, moves on from his "puer" status.
Nelson and Payne make a strong statement about a Midwest way of life that's dying in America, a rustic, simpler existence: small towns filled residents who never leave. Dern, Forte, Squibb and Odenkirk all give terrific performances, as do many of the "real life" actors in the Hawthorne location. Dern's performance especially is deeply nuanced and moving.
Winter is personified in the film, beyond atmospherics, as a secondary character and a primary metaphor. It's not just that snow is shown in many frames or that characters are often windblown and cold. Winter is the season of life depicted in Nebraska. In Northrup Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Frye presents a theory of seasonal archetypes. Winter is "Irony and Satire," with a focus on an individual's faults, and "criticism of society without change." The irony of this phase of Woody's life is evident in Nebraska. But aspects of Robert Frost's poem "An Old Man's Winter Night" inhabit the film, too, especially the ending: "One aged man--one man--can't fill a house/A farm, a countryside, or if he can,/It's thus he does it of a winter night."