NEBRASKA directed by Alexander Payne (USA, 2013)

Today is Father’s Day in Italy so it seems the right day to be reflecting on this movie.

As with Payne’s  About Schmidt & Sideways, character comes before plot and goes some way to explaining why the premise of the film is so contrived. We have to take it as a given that Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is gullible and naive enough to believe that he has won a million dollars in a magazine’s prize draw even though none of his other personality traits make this particularly credible.

Woody is cantankerous, fiercely independent and unsentimental. Thick-skinned and mule-headed, this old man shows no particular affection towards his wife or his two sons.

On the contrary, he seems to regard the younger son , David (Wil Forte), as a schmuck. This negative judgement gradually softens as, unlike the older sardonic son Ross, played by Bob ‘better call Saul’ Odenkirk, David has a limitless patience and tact. He alone is prepared to humour the old man’s obsessive demands rather than concede that he should be confined to a care home.

As a consequence, the story evolves into a kind of family orientated buddy movie. On the road trip to collect Woody’s spurious ‘winnings’ from Lincoln, Nebraska,  the son gets to learn stuff about his father’s past that places him in a fresh light.

None of these details fully explain why Woody is such an ill-tempered hard ass to his offspring but you understand that he is a product of his generation and not alone in having difficulty showing vulnerability.

Filmed in a stark black and white, the barren American landscape looks anything but glamorous. Father and son journey through this soul desert encountering figures from the old man’s past, none of whom lighten Woody’s mood of grim resolution.

This is Bruce Dern’s film of course but June Squibb is also excellent as his long-suffering spouse. It is deliberately slow-moving and meandering with Payne forcing the audience to adjust to its leisurely pace.

Despite his age and eccentricity, Woody is in rude health. Though death looms over him, as it does it all, he seems committed to one act of defiance as a desperate and ultimately futile act of empowerment. In other words, he has decided it is better to be going relentlessly forward than constantly looking back.

What might easily have been a depressing yarn is lightened by the black humour and the realisation that this old man’s single-minded determination is  preferable to passively accepting the dying of the light.