Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Tim Driscoll, Kevin Ratray, Bob Odenkirk.
On his bleak, uncompromising, sparse 1982 acoustic album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen sung haunting and evocative tales of despair, of dreams turned sour and of financial ruin and the slow decline of the American heartland. Some of the songs offered little hope of salvation. And Alexander Payne’s bittersweet new film, also called Nebraska, is a similarly bleak, sparse and uncompromising eulogy to the dying way of life in America’s midwest. This is a character driven film about family and lost hope, although it holds out some hope for redemption.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old man, a former Korean War vet, quiet and rather set in his ways, an alcoholic who is possibly suffering from early touches of dementia. Believing he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes competition he sets off for Lincoln, Nebraska, on foot determined to collect his prize. He’s initially brought back home by the police. Woody has endured a lifetime of hardship, failure and disappointment, and he won’t listen when David and his cranky wife Kate (June Squibb, from Ghost Whisperer, Payne’s earlier About Schmidt, etc) tell him that he is wasting his time because he hasn’t actually won anything. It’s a mailing scam designed to sell magazine subscriptions.
Clutching the certificate in his hands, Woody is determined to get to Lincoln and claim his prize. So, reluctantly, his estranged son David (Will Forte from SNL, 30 Rock, The Cleveland Show, etc), who works as salesman in an electronics retail store, drives him. Along the way they stop off in Hawthorne, Woody’s former town, where he grew up, and revisit his family, an often painful and awkward reunion.
But during the stopover, several people from his past and greedy family members try to grab a piece of his prize money. Nelson and Payne resist the urge to turn these small minded characters into grotesque caricatures. These include his former business partner Ed (a quietly intimidating Stacy Keach), who insists that Woody still owes him money, and a couple of lazy but venal cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray). Some of these scenes are very droll, and lovingly show the unhurried pace of life in these slowly dying and almost forgotten backwater towns where little changes.
But at the core of the film is the growing bond between the taciturn, curmudgeonly and emotionally reticent Woody and David, who is keen to know his father better. This is the sixth film from Payne, whose films often depict ordinary, flawed people on a painful, poignant journey of self-discovery, (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, etc). Nebraska is no exception.
Nebraska is the first feature Payne has directed that he did not write himself. The script was written by television writer Bob Nelson, and is suffused with some painful observations about the nature of family, regrets, reconciling the past and the present, the plight of getting old and the ravages of old age. This is a bleak and scathingly humourous road journey, and although it explores some of the familiar tropes of the genre there is a sense of freshness about the material. There is a quixotic nature to Woody’s determination, akin to the cross country journey undertaken by the lawn mower riding protagonist of David Lynch’s The Straight Story.
The film is told with Payne’s usual deadpan style, with moments of dry humour tempering the bleaker moments, and it unfolds at a leisurely pace that slowly draws us into the story as it reveals more layers to the central characters. Payne was born and raised in Nebraska and has a great sense of place, and these insights inform the film and the characters.
The film has been shot in austere black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who also shot Payne’s Sideways and The Descendants, etc), which gives the film a melancholy look and feel. His haunting evocative visuals of some wide open vistas and lonely landscapes emphasise the stark, bleak nature of the physical and economic decline of rural America.
As usual, Payne is able to elicit wonderful performances from his carefully chosen cast. Bruce Dern has made a career out of playing intense, obsessive, maniacal, driven and psychopathic characters especially during the 70s and 80s when he was at the peak of his game. Not only did he shoot John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys, but other memorable roles include the obsessed cop determined to bring down Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver character in Walter Hill’s The Driver; he was the cuckolded and disturbed Vietnam war veteran betrayed by Jane Fonda in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (for which he was Oscar nominated); and played another disturbed Vietnam vet piloting an explosive blimp in John Frankenheimer’s tense thriller Black Sunday.
Although he has always been busy many of his recent film roles have been in in second rate films released straight to DVD here, if at all. But now he has an opportunity to remind us of what a great character actor he was when given the chance with his superb performance here as the curmudgeonly, alcoholic and abusive Woody Grant (a role originally intended for Gene Hackman). This is one of the best roles of his career, and Dern seizes the opportunity with both hands. Dern makes the most of his sly and often loathsome presence and he makes the grizzled Grant both a monstrous and largely unlikeable figure, but also a pitiful one.
Better known for his comic roles, Forte essentially plays it straight here and delivers a nuanced and understated performance as the gentle, dutiful but frustrated David who manages to work out some unresolved issues with his father. Squibb is superb as his sharp-tongued, outspoken and formidable wife, who is also fiercely protective of the damn fool Woody, and her lively performance is sure to garner some attention at the upcoming awards. And as David’s older brother Ross, a small town television journalist, Bob Odenkirk manages to convey the frustration and resentment of a man who has failed to make the most of his opportunities.
Boasting a career best performance from Dern and some evocative black and white cinematography, Nebraska is a fine addition to Payne’s impressive body of work. This modestly budgeted and deceptively simple film is directed with compassion by Payne. It explores some rich themes and flawed but recognizable characters with honesty.