Nebraska

by Joseph Pisano

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 22, 2013

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in a scene from ’Nebraska’
Bruce Dern and Will Forte in a scene from ’Nebraska’  (Source:Paramount Vantage)

Woody Grant is an unremarkable man, a stark assessment the forthright Woody (Bruce Dern) would likely accept without hesitation. Addled by age, alcohol abuse, and unspoken regrets, at the outset of director Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," Woody has stirred himself from his septuagenarian stupor to journey from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he expects to collect a million-dollar sweepstakes prize promised to him by a junk mailer. No longer able to drive because of his poor mental and physical state, Woody stubbornly intends to hike the roughly 850 miles separating him from his imagined winnings.

Hoping to bond with his dad, or at least keep him from dropping dead on the highway, Woody's son, David (Will Forte), offers to take him to Lincoln. But, despite the opportunity for a teary-eyed rapprochement, "Nebraska" remains a typically subdued Alexander Payne road trip movie ("About Schmidt," "Sideways"), where any hope that revelation will lead to transformation is not the point. Although "Nebraska" has a sprinkling of feel-good moments, it generates them honestly. The movie never suggests that Woody and David can draw closer to each other than reality might allow. And, as is usually the case with Payne, this naturalistic approach works wonders, resulting in a narrative that is far more relatable and touching because it remains unflinchingly grounded in the realm of recognizable human behavior.

Photographed in metaphorically resonant black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, the terrain on either side of the interstate alternates between monotonous agricultural and industrial landscapes and slightly less monotonous agricultural and industrial landscapes, creating a sense of both immutability and oppressiveness. Similar to the sad-sack retiree in "About Schmidt" -- wonderfully portrayed by an artifice-free Jack Nicholson -- Woody has opted for the choices one associates with America's heartland: He served his country in the military; married young; dutifully supported his wife and children; was apparently generous to a fault when it came to his neighbors and extended family, and stoically bore all of his responsibilities and discontents.

But Woody has reaped no discernible happiness from conforming to social expectations. Instead, he has endured the Middle-American Dream by drinking away his brain cells. And, now, near the end of his life, all he has to show for his decades of self-denial are two sons he barely knows (the other one is played by the suddenly ubiquitous Bob Odenkirk), a razor-tongued wife (the disarmingly cherub-faced June Squibb), who is not shy about voicing her own biting regrets, and, of course, his quixotic dreams of riches.

With self-assured patience, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson allow David, and us, to glean enough information about Woody to roughly sketch out his life. The most telling moments come after Woody's alcoholism necessitates a rest stop in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. In this dreary, economically decimated place, Woody's return after a long absence, coupled with loose talk about his pending fortune, turns him into an instant celebrity. But the glad-handing of his extended family and former friends soon turns into veiled money-grubbing threats, and it becomes clear why Woody left in the first place.

Payne does depict a few of the locals benignly, especially the widowed editor of Hawthorne's mom-and-pop newspaper (the charming Angela McEwan). She was Woody's first love, and still apparently sees something in Woody that no one else can. But, in general, Payne's Nebraska is populated by the blandly polite and the doltishly opportunistic. Woody's old crooked business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is the most villainous example of the latter. A broken-down bully and petty conniver, Pegram seems to have held onto his pathetic life solely for the chance to take advantage of Woody one last time.

The unflattering portraits that comprise a large part of "Nebraska" beg the question of whether or not Payne, himself a native of Omaha, is being unfair to his fellow Cornhuskers. To be sure, Payne is not above poking a little fun at the intellectual, emotional, and imaginative limitations of the yokels in "Nebraska," but his primary concern is revealing why these limitations exist. At his core, Payne is, and has always been, a clear-eyed humanist, willing to delve into lives many other filmmakers would leave on the cutting room floor.

With "Nebraska," Payne also continues his uninterrupted run as a thoughtful enemy of typecasting, earning ample dividends, once again, for letting actors exceed our conceptions of them. His two leads particularly shine. Forte, largely known for his stint on "Saturday Night Live," finds a tender use for his hangdog looks, turning himself into an effective foil for Dern's cantankerous Woody. As for Dern, he embodies Woody with an authenticity that is almost too painful to watch. It is, arguably, the greatest performance of the actor's long career, though, truth be told, Hollywood did not offer him many worthwhile opportunities to exceed it. That may not be as tragic as Woody's life, but it is a tragedy.

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Joseph Pisano is a freelance writer living in New York.