Old and dishevelled Woody Grant looks like he is on his last legs. Unemployed, crotchety and ornery, completely ignores his wife, and barely able to walk, but that doesn’t stop him being stubbornly determined to trek some 900 old miles by foot on a whim that he has won $1 million dollars. He has received one of those innocuous ‘sweepstake’ flyers in the mail that are trying to sell magazine subscriptions but as it has his name is printed on it, he has convinced himself that the prize money is real and his and that just needs to be claimed in person.
Every time the Police pick him up after finding him wandering the highway bound for Nebraska, his son David has to take him back home again to face the wrath of Kate, Woody’s very angry wife. Initially David, worried that his father is losing his mind with his obsessional quest, also pleads with him to see sense, but after a while, concedes that he will help Woody regardless, if for no other reason than to take a break from his own rather sad disappointed life.
He offers to drive Woody as he had lost his licence some years ago, and the two set off on the long road trip. Down through Wyoming and South Dakota until they make a pit-stop in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne. Paying a visit to his older brothers ramshackle home, it is obvious that Woody is not the only male in the family that grunts in monosyllables as a way of conversation.
Word soon leaks out in this close community of Woody’s impending newly found riches and he becomes the talk of this very small town. He is happy to bask in this new celebrity even though it brings out his ex-partner and untold family members who are keen to stake their claim on the winnings. Any attempt by David to explain the reality behind Woody’s expectations is met with derision, but he does at least get to meet people from his father’s past ….such as an ex girlfriend …. and for once actually starts to learn something about his taciturn father.
Kate and Woody’s other son Ross reluctantly rejoin them for the final part of the trip, and even though they all believe in its futility, have some how started to find a closeness as family that never exsited before. Kate is always relentless tough on Woody, but when she lets her potty mouth lose on their money grabbing relatives, she gives an impassioned speech on what a good man he is, that suddenly reveals another side of her and their relationship.
This simple story completely engages from the start and so that you cannot avoid being invested in its outcome, which is far less about the $1 million itself but what the journey does to the dynamics of this family.
This glorious new movie from Alexander Payne (‘Sideways’ ‘The Descendents’) shot in austere back and white is set in the present but with its vistas of near-abandoned farmland and its dilapidated struggling small mid-west towns that have been decimated by the economic climate, gives it feeling of a bygone America from another era. Woody just seems like another victim of a world that has simply passed him by.
Besides the immediate family, the story is peppered with some totally glorious but completely droll plain-speaking mid-westerners who unwittingly add a rich layer of humor and warmth to this tale. They may appear as if time has stopped still for them as they seem as discarded as the land that they used to farm but some how that doesn’t worry any of them.
Payne could not have hired a better cast. Bruce Dern with his weather-beaten face looking perpetually dazed gave a career defining performance as Woody. He was so full of self-loathing and real indignation and cantankerous as ever when he believed that people had misjudged him, and they all did. In a far from easy role as the son who had also fallen way short of his own expectations, let alone his father’s, Will Forte(ex SNL) was perfect as David in a part that I would never have previously imagined him for. And I totally loved June Squibb(‘About Schmidt’) as put upon Kate who barely had a good word to say about anyone.
This was the first time that Mr Payne was working from a script written by someone other than himself (Bob Nelson). It was also the first time he made a movie in his home state which judging from this he obviously felt the need to leave as soon as he could. Making ‘Woody’ make the journey there was a profound reflective look at what he left behind.