Convinced that he's won a million dollars, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets off to claim his prize. Two problems with that: he lives in Billings, Montana, but the sweepstakes office is in Lincoln, Nebraska, and he lost his drivers license. As a result, he plans to walk the full 850 miles. His son David (Will Forte), in hopes of bonding with his father, offers to drive him. There's just one more big problem though…the odds are billions to one that Woody actually won anything at all.
The performances are as understated – except for scene-stealer June Quibb – as the deliberate pacing. (Read: slow.) But wait! This little indie gem by director Alexander Payne will linger in the minds and hearts far more than most.
Here are five reasons this road trip is worth taking:
1. The Role He Was Born to Play. Dern's been a Hollywood actor for forty years. He's usually playing a guy with stringy hair that gets your attention quick. As Woody, Dern sheds most of his eccentric acting ticks. What remains are his eyes, always darting right out of our view, looking for something Woody lost a long time ago. It's a performance that will surely be recognized come awards season.
2. In Black & White the Midwest Has Plenty of Payne. After traversing Hawaii with Clooney in The Descendants, Payne returns to his Midwestern roots with a somber look at last chances filmed in glorious black and white. This might seem a long way from Payne's satiric Election days. As Tracy Flick, Reece Witherspoon was never somber (or quiet), but all of Payne's characters share similarities: they all rally against the inevitability of their situations (retirement in About Schmidt, having to move forward in The Descendants). Often, Woody comes across like a crazy old man who doesn't understand exactly what's going on as he holds on tight to his winning certificate. We root for him and sympathize with frustrated family because in the end, we all wish we could just take someone at their word.
3. Father and Son. The heart of the story is David's dedication to his pop. Forte is as far from MacGruber as Lincoln is from Billings; a worn out stereo sales guy longing to drown out the high volume of life. A stare down between David and Woody's former friend Ed (an intimidating Stacy Keach) is a highlight.
4. June Squibb: Back from the Dead as Mother. Squibb was seen briefly in About Schmidt. She played Jack Nicholson's recently departed wife and had only about three lines of dialogue. As Kate "Mother" Grant she doles out an earful of strong opinions, foul language, and the ever-increasing risk of punching out her relatives. You can't take your eyes off her. She would terrify us if she wasn't so darn funny. On second thought, she's pretty terrifying.
5. Better Call Saul, Never. Among the colorful cast of supporting players, Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk brings his usual rapid-fire banter as Woody's more successful, way less sensitive other son, Ross. Cast as the rest of the Grant family are mostly unknowns, each leaving their mark on Woody, who they hope has won a million smackers for real. Beware of the two big cousins played with much girth by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray. Unless you want to be mocked, don't tell them about your driving skills. Harsh, man.