NEBRASKA – The Review
With NEBRASKA, director Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska to gracefully examine the lives of aging Midwesterners. Lensed in nostalgic black-and-white, Payne’s new film is anchored by an epic, awards-worthy performance by 7-year old Bruce Dern (crowned Best Actor at Cannes), but it’s not the unstable crazed Dern that made the actor a star in the ‘70s with films like BLACK SUNDAY, TATTOO and COMING HOME. Dern’s Woody Grant (a role offered to Gene Hackman to unsuccessfully lure him out of retirement) doesn’t say a lot in NEBRASKA nor does his expression change much. It’s a role that forces him to skate by on a Hollywood veteran’s charisma and gravity and presence, something tough for any actor to do, but Dern pulls it off in spectacular form, turning this deceptively slight film into one of the year’s best.
Alcoholic Woody Grant is convinced he’s won a million dollars in a Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes. Woody’s chirpy wife Kate (June Squibb – Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s ABOUT SCHMIDT) threatens to use the money to put the old crank in a retirement home. Woody’s younger son David (SNL alum Will Forte – an unusual but rewarding casting choice), a passive electronics salesman, recognizes a fool’s errand but, seeing an opportunity to finally get to know his dad, indulges him. Father and son take a 800+ mile trek from Billings Montana to Lincoln Nebraska to collect the winnings. David’s wish to bond with his father is dashed early on as Woody gets drunk at the earliest possible convenience, suffers a nasty cut on his head, and loses his teeth on some railroad tracks. The pair eventually to take a detour and stay with long-unseen relatives in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town where Woody grew up and where what’s left of his kin still reside. This is where most of the story takes place and where Woody’s family and old friends (and a couple of enemies) initially buy into to his claim of great upcoming wealth. Their ugly and greedy sides are exposed as confrontations, jealousies, and long pent-up revelations arise, making Woody’s homecoming more than a bit knotty.
A father/son bonding road trip isn’t exactly the most original idea and Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s themes of aging parents, small town squalor, and middle-age children struggling with identity issues may seem like tiresome indie-film tropes, but the screenplay is wise and often funny. Payne’s skillful, subtle direction combined with Phedon Papamichael’s camerawork, with its dazzling Midwestern landscapes, well captures the story’s melancholy impression. But it’s mostly Payne’s skill as an actor’s director that are on display. Dern has a great scene where he tours his dilapidated boyhood home and another visiting a graveyard where his friends and family are all buried. These scenes are moving but the actor is equally powerful in humorous moments like his unimpressed assessment of Mount Rushmore. Forte underplays his sad sack part as well, coming off as a genuinely nice guy exasperated by his inability to keep his father sober and out of trouble. More colorful are the supporting players. Stacy Keach shines as the film’s villain, a jerk who feels he’s owed something from his old business associate Woody and uses threats to get it. June Squibb has several scene-stealing moments as Woody’s jaunty, vulgar wife. Shot throughout the Midwest, NEBRASKA is a well-pitched character study/road film that artfully mixes home-spun humor with haunting visuals and is highly recommended.
5 of 5 Stars
NEBRASKA opens in St. Louis Wednesday, November 27th at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater