The tale of an elderly possibly senile pensioner and his quest to claim a million dollars with the help of his son seems an unlikely Oscar nominee. Yet Alexander Payne’s tale has a hidden depth that makes this movie stay with you long after the end credits have rolled.
The ‘winning ticket’ that Woody Grant (played superbly by Bruce Dern) believes he has is nothing more than marketing scam that 99.9% of people would recognize as such.
His son knows it, as does is wife but Woody can’t give up on the idea that this is real. So his son David (Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to take him on a road trip to Lincoln Nebraska where he can claim his ‘prize’.
It’s this trip which begins to reveal who Woody is. Namely a hard-drinking man of few words who clearly has not been the father he might have been.
This mid western odyssey slowly unravels as Woody hurts himself when drunk and has to stay with grasping relatives, who as the plot proceeds, actually try to rob him of his ticket.
But with each new humiliation and delusion his son learns who is father really is and perhaps for the first time can begin to feel a measure of closeness to him. However misguided his father is in believing his struck it rich we see that his reasons for believing go beyond greed and center instead on the simple wish to leave something to his sons.
Why this film works so well is that the man at the helm, Alexander Payne, never allows the story to become slapstick and absurdly comic. Everything feels utterly believable from the expert casting to the slow pacing. The obvious is skillfully avoided and the plot never goes in the way we are anticipating.
Even the decision to shoot in black and white fits the drab and stultifying existence of the cast. This is a world with precious little Technicolor where the smallest moments of pleasure have to be seized.
In the end the film ends on an uplifting note as Woody drives a new pick up through the town where he grew up, allowing him to feel for just a few minutes like one of life’s winners.