The film follows an elderly Montana resident and his son attempting to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize on a long trip to Nebraska.
In Billings, Montana, a police officer arrives and discovers Woody Grant walking around in the traffic. Woody is picked up by his son, David, who learns that Woody wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect a million dollar sweepstakes prize he believes he has won. When David sees the sweepstakes letter, he knows immediately that it is a mail scam designed to get gullible people to purchase magazine subscriptions. He brings Woody home, where David's mother, Kate, becomes increasingly annoyed by Woody's insistence on collecting his money.
After Woody is picked up again trying to get to Nebraska, David and his older brother Ross, a local TV news anchor, discuss putting Woody in a retirement home. David is paid a visit by his ex-girlfriend, Noel, who returns his belongings and refuses to move back in with David. Their conversation is cut short by a call from David's mother reporting that his father has taken off once again. David retrieves Woody and decides to drive him all the way to Lincoln, much to Kate's dismay.
While in Rapid City, South Dakota, Woody goes on a bender and hits his head while stumbling back to their motel room. David takes him to the hospital to get his head stitched up. David learns that they will be passing through Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, and suggests they spend the night with Woody's family. Woody is against the idea, but they end up going anyway.
They stay with Woody's brother Ray, his wife, and their two sons, Cole and Bart. Woody and David visit a mechanic shop Woody once co-owned, followed by some beers at a bar. When David brings up Woody's alcoholism and problems within the family—with Woody implying that he did not love Kate nor really want children—they get into an argument. At another bar, they run into Woody's former business partner, Ed Pegram, whom the family blames for stealing Woody's air compressor decades ago. Over David's objections, Woody mentions winning the money and the barflies toast his good fortune. The next morning, they learn that the news has spread through the town like wildfire.
Kate arrives by bus in Hawthorne, where David escorts his parents to the cemetery. Kate pays her respects there while providing some colorful history on Woody's relatives, particularly their sex lives. A local newspaper owner wants to run a story about Woody and his sweepstakes "victory." She is an old lover of Woody's and provides David with some background about his father, including how he was affected and turned to alcohol after being shot down during the Korean War. That night, while David is out to dinner with Woody and Kate, Ed corners David in the men's room about some money Ed loaned Woody years ago that he wants back, threatening legal action.
The rest of Woody's family, including Ross, come to visit him. Woody's nephews, Cole and Bart, and others approach David and Ross about their share of the money that they believe Woody owes them. A fight begins, ending abruptly with Kate calling out the relatives for their own unpaid debts. David, Kate, Ross, and Woody tour Woody's childhood home, which has fallen into disrepair. They drive past a house Kate identifies as Ed's, so David and Ross conspire to steal back the air compressor. Kate soon realizes that the house actually belongs to another couple. She distracts the homeowners so David and Ross can quickly return the stolen compressor.
At the bar, asking Woody for money, Ed reveals that Woody cheated on Kate before David's birth. As they leave, they are attacked by a masked Bart and Cole, who escape with the sweepstakes letter. They later tell David they threw it away after finding out it was a scam. Nevertheless, David and Woody go searching for it. They enter a bar where they find Ed reading the letter aloud to the other patrons, humiliating Woody. After Woody takes the letter back and goes outside, David punches Ed in the face.
Woody has repeatedly said he wants to buy a truck with the money. He cannot drive any more, but Woody tells his son that he also wants to leave something for his family when he passes. David says that they are not going to Lincoln, at which point Woody collapses. David takes him to the hospital in Norfolk. In the middle of the night, Woody abruptly leaves and starts walking, so David relents and drives Woody to Lincoln.
They arrive at the marketing agency, where they are told that Woody did not have the winning number. He is given a consolation gift of a hat that reads "Prize Winner". David goes to an auto dealership and trades in his Subaru for a late-model truck that his father always wanted, along with a new Craftsman air compressor. While driving back through Hawthorne, David lets Woody take the wheel for all to see, hiding below the dash to allow Woody to feel that his days of independence are not over yet. Among them is Woody's former flame who smiles at him, a nonplussed Ed with a black eye, and Woody's brother Albert. Woody waves goodbye and drives out of town, then stops in the middle of the road and switches seats with David, who takes them the rest of the way back home.Bruce Dern as Woodrow T. "Woody" Grant, David and Ross' father, and Kate's husband
Will Forte as David Grant, Woody and Kate's youngest son, and Ross' brother
June Squibb as Kate Grant, Woody's wife, and Ross and David's mother
Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant, Woody and Kate's oldest son and David's brother
Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, Woody's old business partner
Mary Louise Wilson as Aunt Martha, Woody's sister-in-law
Missy Doty as Noel, David's former girlfriend
Angela McEwan as Pegy Nagy, a former girlfriend of Woody's
Rance Howard as Uncle Ray, one of Woody's brothers
Melinda Simonsen as the Receptionist in the contest office
Terry Kotrous as Sheriff
While in production on About Schmidt, Alexander Payne was given Bob Nelson's screenplay by producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, asking him to recommend a director. He asked to direct it himself, but did not want to follow up one road trip film (Sideways, on which he was in pre-production) with another. He decided to wait until after completing The Descendants to pick up this project. This was the first film of Payne's in which he was not directly involved in the screenwriting, and he rewrote only a few things prior to the beginning of filming.
Screenwriter Nelson appears as an extra in a restaurant scene.
After first reading the script, Payne thought of Bruce Dern for the role of the elderly father Woody Grant. As casting for the film began, Payne met with more than 50 actors. Because Paramount demanded a big star, Gene Hackman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Forster were initially short listed for the role. Hackman had retired, and Duvall and De Niro were indisposed on other projects. Payne eventually considered Dern again. The director chose this actor because, as he said:
Well, he's of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery. And he's a cool actor. And in a contextual level I haven't seen on the big screen a great Bruce Dern performance in a few years and I'm curious to see what he can do. He's a helluva nice guy as well.
The role of son David Grant was desired by several notable Hollywood actors. Bryan Cranston read for the role, but Payne considered him a bad fit. Other considered candidates for the role included Paul Rudd, Casey Affleck, and Matthew Modine, who spoke publicly of being considered. Payne later selected Will Forte, despite rumors that a high-profile actor was wanted. Payne stated he cast the comedian because:
Will Forte, physically, I believed could be the son of Bruce Dern and June Squibb (who plays Woody's long-suffering wife, Kate). And then I just believe him as a guy I would know around Omaha or meet in Billings. He has a very, very believable quality. And I also think for the character of David he is capable of communicating a certain wide-eyed quality toward life and also damage – like he's been damaged somehow, somewhere.
The film was shot with Arri Alexa digital cameras and Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses. The film's lighting was designed to accommodate black and white screening, and was converted from color to black and white in post-production because Payne said he wanted to produce an "iconic, archetypal look". According to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, the choice was to use "the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes and of course the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story". The choice of black and white was made against distributor Paramount Vantage's wishes. A color version of the film was also produced in an effort to satisfy distributor Paramount Vantage's concerns; Payne said that he hopes no one ever sees it. Despite this, the network Epix announced in August 2014 that it would show the color version as a "limited time showing".
Nebraska started filming in locations in its namesake state in November 2012. Filming moved to Billings, Montana; Buffalo, Wyoming; and Rapid City, South Dakota, and wrapped in December after a 35-day shoot. Nebraska communities where filming took place include Allen, Battle Creek, Elgin, Hooper, Lincoln, Lyons, Madison, Norfolk, Osmond, Pierce, Plainview, Stanton, and Tilden. The premiere in the namesake state was in Norfolk on November 25, 2013.
The film score to Nebraska was composed by Tin Hat member Mark Orton. The score also includes performances by other members of Tin Hat, providing the first time the three original members have reunited since 2005. A soundtrack album was released by Milan Records on November 19, 2013.
Nebraska was rated R by the MPAA for "some language"; this resulted in mild controversy, with some claiming it had been rated too strongly. Both Payne and the film's distributor, Paramount Pictures, filed for an appeal that would have re-rated the film PG-13, although the appeal failed.
Nebraska was met with widespread acclaim, with critics praising the acting (particularly Dern and Squibb), direction, screenplay, and cinematography. The film has a "Certified Fresh" score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 223 reviews, with an average rating of 8.1 out of 10. The critical consensus states: "Elegant in its simplicity and poetic in its message, Nebraska adds another stirringly resonant chapter to Alexander Payne's remarkable filmography." The film also has a score of 86 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 45 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
In his review following the Cannes Film Festival, Robbie Collin at The Daily Telegraph gave the film four stars out of five, describing it as "a bittersweet elegy for the American extended family, shot in a crisp black-and-white that chimes neatly with the film's concern for times long past." He also said the film was "a resounding return to form for Payne". Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian wrote that Payne had "returned to a more natural and personal movie language", and praised Dern's performance. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal noted that "Bruce Dern's portrait of the boozy old coot is a wonder, as well as the capstone, thus far, of that singular actor's career." Writing for Roger Ebert's website, Christy Lemire commented, “The film's starkly beautiful final images have a poignancy that might leave a lump in your throat.”
Nebraska has received several awards and nominations since its release. The American Film Institute included it in their Top Ten Films of the Year. The cast won Best Ensemble from the Boston Society of Film Critics, while Squibb won Best Supporting Actress. Nebraska has received five Golden Globe nominations. It also earned six nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards. Dern and Forte won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively at the National Board of Review. Nebraska has gathered three Satellite Award nominations and has won Best Cast and Best Supporting Actress for Squibb. The film received two nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards.