All the indie movie red flags are here, lying in wait to ruin your day: a road trip based on folly, middle-American dumpiness, familial estrangement, aging parents and middle-aged children struggling to excavate some kind of feeling for one another, some reason why the universe threw them together in the same family. You've seen enough of these little movies to know the score: they're small but wish they were big, they masquerade as real life and toss off finales made of cheap sentiment to let you off the hook and smooth over the few moments of discomfort they throw your way. You walk out having enjoyed three and a half condescending laughs, your sense of cultural superiority intact.
But this isn't that. It's in black and white for starters, the better to highlight life's disintegration and the bleak winter landscape, muting those red flags into a charcoal gray of surprisingly down-tuned everything, including the laughs, and it's a smart step in a more astringent direction for filmmaker Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways).
Elderly ex-mechanic Woody (Bruce Dern, looking perfectly lost and grimly determined to stay that way) is a career drunk drifting into both old age and alcoholic dementia. Thanks to this he believes that the form letter he's received in the mail, the one announcing him as the winner of a million dollars, necessitates walking from Montana to Nebraska to claim non-existent prize money. His exasperated wife (the belligerently funny June Squibb, stealing all her scenes) is willing to let him go and never come back. But his son David (Will Forte), looking to let his father have one more shot at happiness and autonomy -- and maybe get a little of that movie-style resolution for himself -- humors the old coot. So off they go.
What they find along the way runs perfectly counter to cliche. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson are more concerned with digging into the sadness of families who will never connect, the mournful humor of emotional exhaustion, the mystery of why aging often exaggerates anger and bitterness, the loss of identity and the ethical dilemmas involved with lying to your sometimes-there/sometimes-not parents just to make the day run more smoothly.
All the performances are dryly on-point. Dern delivers late-career greatness as the man who withheld love for too long, or maybe never had it inside himself to give in the first place (when David asks his father why he had children, Woody says, "I liked to screw and your mother was Catholic"). Squibb is a walking complaint, brazenly blunt, angry at the universe for not giving her more than a burden for a spouse. And Forte's sighs, long-suffering exhalations and drooping head demonstrate a natural ease with straightforward drama. As the trip lumbers on, he knows he took it for himself as much as for old Dad, but that old Dad will never care.
It's not all despair. There's a streak of crisp, unsparing comedy that informs everything on screen as it mostly refuses to detour into run-of-the-mill Walmart-shopper mockery, the kind that this sort of project often can't help itself from inflicting. And as the red flags are dispensed with, the film becomes a series of quiet warning shots -- against becoming a crank, against losing your capacity for understanding, against burning bridges, squandering hope and turning yourself into an enemy of friends, family and life. At the end of this road trip you're stuck with yourself, the movie seems to be saying, so you'd better work on becoming better company.