Woody Grant is on the verge of becoming a millionaire. Or so he believes.
"It says I won," the aging alcoholic argues with his fortysomething son, David, trying to convince his boy that the official-looking Mega Sweepstakes Marketing mailing he's received is his golden ticket to golden years of bliss. "We are now authorized to pay 1 million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana," he intones formally.
David's attempt to convince his disheveled father that what he's received is junk mail (not jump-up-and-down mail) falls on deaf ears. As do the sharp words of Woody's cantankerous wife, Kate. "I never even knew the son of a b‑‑ch wanted to be a millionaire," she snorts. "He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it."
Alone in his belief that he's fallen headlong into a seven-figure pool of riches, Woody sets off—on foot—for Lincoln, Neb., to claim his winnings. The first time he tries it, the police find him wandering down the road. The second time, David does. It soon becomes clear that nothing—not logic, not rhetoric, not ridicule—is going to keep Woodrow T. Grant from pursuing his illusory prize.
"I'm going to Lincoln if it's the last thing I do," he warns. "And I don't care what you people think."
To keep his alcohol-sodden, dementia-assailed father from ending up dead in a ditch, dutiful David relents and agrees to take him—despite more haranguing from his mother. "You're just like your father," she says, "stubborn as a mule." "How much longer is he gonna be around?" David counters later on. "What's the harm in letting him have his little fantasy for just a couple more days?"
So father and son clamber into David's dilapidated Subaru and begin their trek across the Great Plains. It's an unlikely journey that happens to intersect with Woody's rural hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., pop. 1,358. And let's just say that Woody's family—his brother and sister-in-law, Ray and Martha, and their two grown boys, Cole and Bart—are more than a little surprised to see the Montana Grants roll into town.
But that's nothing compared to the surprise that sweeps down Main St. when at the local tavern one night Woody tells a greedy former business partner named Ed Pegram about his "jackpot."
You thought Woody was wacky about his winnings? The more David tries to convince the old man's family and associates that nobody's going to be a millionaire, the more they're determined to get themselves a piece of Woody's pie in the sky.
Woody hasn't been a particularly good father or husband. A lifetime alcoholic, he's a man of few words who's largely failed his sons because of his addiction. But David still treats his father with kindness and patience. And as the story unfolds, especially after they get to Hawthorne, he slowly learns things about his father he's never known before—like the fact that a plane Woody was in during the Korean War got shot down. David also hears quite a lot about how Woody was generous to a fault, always loaning money to anyone who asked for it, even if he didn't have it to give.
A significant part of the story revolves around Woody's relationship with Ed, with whom he once owned an auto repair garage. And when it becomes increasingly clear that Ed took advantage of Woody, David confronts the man, trying to defend his dad's honor—though hitting the guy in the face probably isn't the best way to go about it. Similarly, when David and his brother Ross (who has by this time joined them in Nebraska) wrongheadedly set out to "steal back" an old air compressor for their dad, it is still an attempt to right and redeem and old wrong, and it's symbolic of their newfound respect for their father. (They do other good things for him too, most of them legal.)
Woody talks about wanting to leave an inheritance for his boys, and in doing so reveals that he hasn't been as hardhearted toward them as they've long believed. Oh, and even grouchy Kate comes around a bit in the end. She publically defends Woody, delivering a no-nonsense speech detailing how so many people took advantage of his basic generosity. Indeed, several scenes find her loyally supporting the husband that she otherwise spends most of the time criticizing.
Kate references her Catholic faith, as does Woody, who says (wink, wink) that it was the reason David and Ross were born. Ed says of changing cultural mores, "Back then, divorce was a sin. Nowadays, it's OK. God must've changed His mind."
David has a conversation with his ex-girlfriend, Nöel, in which he tries to talk her into moving back in with him. And he asks, rather pathetically, "Are we still having sex?" But when she hints at wanting to get married, it's clear that David won't pay that steep a price for more intimate relations.
Go back a generation, and we find slightly different lyrics set to the same tune: Woody talks with David about why he married Kate, and it seems the primary reason wasn't love or commitment but Woody's admission, "I like to screw." Indeed, one woman David meets says Woody broke up with her because she "wouldn't let him round the bases." And Ed reveals that Woody had an affair (with a "half-breed down at the reservation") decades ago.
Kate talks about former sexual experiences (hers and others'), using some pretty salty language. From a distance (at a graveyard) we see her hike up her skirt over a guy's head who once "wanted in my pants too." She gloats, "See what you could have had?" She describes a woman as a "slut" and a "whore." A story about milking cows evokes more crude and suggestive anatomical slang.
David punches Ed in the face. Wearing ski masks, Woody's greedy nephews Bart and Cole essentially mug their uncle and cousin. They hold David and Woody while reaching into Woody's coat to grab his treasured sweepstakes letter, which they believe they can redeem themselves. Two conversations reference Cole having sexually assaulted a woman. Ross gets into a brief, comical scuffle. While drunk, Woody falls and ends up with a bloody gash on his forehead. (We watch the doctor stitch it up.)
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words. Nearly a dozen s-words. One use of "c‑‑‑s‑‑‑‑‑." God's name is abused a dozen times (eight times with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' is misused six or seven times. "H‑‑‑" pops up at least 15 times, and we hear a handful of uses each of "b‑‑ch" and "b‑‑tard."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Woody's a lifelong alcoholic who is still, for the most part, in denial—insisting that drinking beer isn't really "drinking." (Never mind that he repeatedly gets falling-down drunk while guzzling the stuff.) He tells David, "You'd drink too if you were married to your mother." When he invites David to drink with him, his son initially refuses, saying he's quit because of his own addiction (so he can turn out better than his drunken father). Eventually, however, the younger man relents and repeatedly drinks with his dad at Hawthorne's two bars. (David and Ross do talk about the effects of their dad's drinking on their lives.)
Woody's brothers and nephews basically just drink beer and watch TV, and it's implied that they're all alcoholics. A few characters drink wine. Folks are shown smoking, and we see full ashtrays at bars.
Other Negative Elements
Several scenes picture Woody (from the back) urinating on the side of a road. Bart and Cole meanly mock David and Woody. They deride David's preference for "Jap cars."
David asks his father if he ever regretted marrying Kate. Dad responds, "All the time."
Nebraska plumbs the depths of our innate longings for connection and legacy, significance and dignity—all things Woody Grant doesn't have. His has been a sad, quiet, passive and tragic life, a painful existence he's tried to obliterate with a bottle.
The poignancy of Alexander Payne's latest effort, then, is in the modest, observant ways he shows us that even a life as broken and wasted as Woody's still has meaning and sanctity. In one scene, for example, Woody, Kate, David and Ross drive out to the now-abandoned home where Woody grew up. Windows are broken and it's unlocked, so the family wanders in to explore the decrepit and musty rooms. Woody walks around quietly, looking, remembering. And he tells his family that his father built the home himself. On the second floor he looks out a broken window and says simply, "Barn's still standing."
In other words, his father built something of meaning, something of significance, something Woody himself has largely failed to do in his own hard, sad life. But you can see in the man's wistful eyes a longing to have lived better, to have left behind a better legacy.
Woody and David do eventually arrive at the offices of Mega Sweepstakes Marketing in Lincoln, where a woman behind the desk duly informs Woody that he has not, in fact, won a million dollars. His consolation? A ruefully ironic hat emblazoned with "Prize Winner."
"This happen a lot?" David asks.
"Yeah, usually with older people like your father," the woman replies.
The message? There are a lot of Woodys out there, people desperately clinging to any scrap of hope they can scrounge up as they face (or not face) the hard things in their unnoticed lives.
Payne's exploration of these deeply human themes isn't always pretty. In fact, much of the time, it's anything but pretty, whether we're watching a drunken old man lose his dentures or listening to his coarse wife harp profanely on his glaring shortcomings. And you could argue that by film's end, nothing has substantively changed for Woody. That all he got for his trouble is a silly hat.
And yet …
Nebraska exudes a strangely uplifting tone amid its grit and grime. And it ultimately leaves us with a hope that if we choose to enter into the journeys of those closest to us—even if those journeys are hard and ugly at times—the result will be seeing others and ourselves with more clarity, compassion and dignity.