Monday, February 3, 2014

A "Nebraska" State of Mind

Who is Bruce Dern? I recognized the veteran actor's name, but I couldn't put a name to the face. Looking at his list of credits, I'd seen a lot of the films he appeared in, but apparently missed the ones that he won the most acclaim for. So I went into "Nebraska" knowing almost nothing about its most highly lauded actor, who has been enjoying lots of awards attention for this performance, and I think I was better off for it.

"Nebraska" is about Woody Grant (Dern), an elderly former mechanic who lives in Billings, Montana. We first see him making his slow but steady way down the side of a busy street, before he is stopped by a concerned patrolman. When Woody's son David (Will Forte) comes to pick him up at the station, we learn that Woody was trying to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his one million dollar winnings from a marketing company that sent him a letter - clearly just a solicitation for magazine subscriptions, but Woody is convinced it's real. Woody's exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are unsympathetic and discuss putting Woody in a nursing home, but after Woody makes another failed attempt to walk to Nebraska, David decides to drive him there.

I'd initially assumed from the synopses I'd read that this was a father-son road trip movie, but the bulk of the story takes place in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the Grants' original hometown where many of the extended family and Woody's old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) still live. Woody and David stay with relatives there over an eventful weekend, where they reconnect with the past and each other to an extent. But if I've made this sound like a typical feel good movie, this couldn't be further from the truth. "Nebraska" was directed by Alexander Payne, responsible for other painfully human dramedies full of disappointment and heartache like "The Descendants," "Sideways," and "About Schmidt."

Payne's vision of the midwest is a dull, depressing place. The characters inhabit small towns gripped by economic decline. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, capturing the vastness and emptiness of the landscape, and the topography of aging faces. All of it is suffused with an inescapable melancholy. It's this tone that sets "Nebraska" apart. The script is low-key, but punctuated with a lot of humor, occasionally of the ribald variety. The pacing is measured and the story is largely made up of incidental moments, but not to the point where it's off-putting. Once you settle into the rhythm of the film's universe, it doesn't feel slow at all.

I've seen some claim that the film presents an unfair view of its older, Midwestern characters, who are tripped up by simple misunderstandings and seem to conform to common cliches. And yes, some of them are very broadly drawn for comedic purposes. However, I was struck by how well-observed the portrayals were, the way a family reunion ends up centering around a televised sports game and how Woody interacts with a bartender at an old drinking spot. For the most part, the people in "Nebraska" look and behave like real people, and aside from a few obvious bad apples they're decent, well-meaning, and perfectly ordinary. And they have the flaws that ordinary people have.

Woody Grant is similarly ordinary, but a fascinating figure. Everyone offers David different stories about Woody, painting him as an irresponsible alcoholic, a damaged soldier, a bad father, a generous man who couldn't say no to anybody, a fondly remembered old lover, and many other things. Bruce Dern's performance offers clues as to how these different versions can be reconciled. Woody is frequently lost and confused, his expression vacant and his mind perhaps not all there. However, he's still aware of how others view him, remembers certain parts of his past all too clearly, and retains a stubborn pride that drives many of his actions.

For me, Dern disappears into the role fully, helped by the fact that I had no preconceived notions of his work as an actor. It's incredible how expressive he is, his posture and body language alone saying volumes about his state of mind. Part of him, however, remains impenetrable. Does he understand that his letter is a fake? Does he care? Similarly, June Squibb was also a complete unknown to me, and is the film's great comedic force as the family's scolding, worrying, and sometimes inappropriately candid maternal juggernaut. And despite all the difficulties and indignities that they embody, I found I liked them very much.

Of Payne's other films, "About Schmidt" is the one that "Nebraska" reminds me of the most, another story about the odyssey of an older man looking for a little meaning in his life. However, I much prefer "Nebraska" for its tighter focus on familial relationships, it's ensemble, and especially for Bruce Dern's work here. There's also a great sense of nostalgia and affection for the small towns and elderly denizens of "Nebraska," along with the light satiric touches, which I found tremendously affecting.

I always underestimate Alexander Payne and he keeps delivering, time after time. Really, ought to know better by now.

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