America’s hard land

Modest father-son redemption in bleak road movie

Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Nebraska, the new picture from Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, Citizen Ruth), is filmed in widescreen black-and-white, and most of it has the bleakness of the central plains in late winter. Story-wise, much of it is a sort of start-and-stop (and start again) road movie in which an unhappy young man (Will Forte) indulges the wishes of his aged father (Bruce Dern) to travel from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., for an in-person submission of what he assumes to be the prize-winning number in the lottery run by a mail-order subscription service.

The quixotic nature of this endeavor is essential to the pathos and contrasting charms of father and son alike, but that fool’s errand also puts both men on paths toward tentative regeneration, modest but real, for their respective stalled lives.

Woody Grant (Dern) is at times little more than a gaunt, withered, almost ghostly figure persisting against the weather and vast spaces, doggedly bent on his peculiar mission. Wistful David (Forte) and his older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), persist in quixotic tasks of their own, and the brothers’ mother (hardscrabble matron June Squibb) prods all three with serendipitous jolts of loving antagonism. Stacy Keach has a couple of good moments as Ed Pegram, Woody’s erstwhile partner and nemesis.

Payne and his actors play Bob Nelson’s script as a quietly corrosive comedy of Midwestern manners. A cool, patient realism prevails, even in the occasional bits of faintly gothic caricature.