Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Set against, and in, the vast rural landscape of Middle America, Alexander Payne's minimal, beautiful Nebraska is a touching, honest and, at times, darkly funny film on aging, fathers, sons, marriage, family and the inevitable realities of life. Payne focuses his film on the isolated, yet free, expanses of the Midwest and examines, through the smallest of lenses, the ways of life that stay still, but carry so much weight. Nebraska, in its gorgeous monochrome palate, is full of real looking Americans that are presented as truth and not a figment of a Hollywood's assumed imagination, even if this lifestyle, as simple as it may appear, is a simplistic bore and monotonous reality. A film full of life in the glances, weathered faces and appreciative fulfillment of being alive.
Nebraska follows the journey of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man living in Billings, Montana, that believes he has won a million dollars from a marketing scheme. You know, the ones that say your a winner, but the fine print details the specifics of this fake contest that winds up costing you money and adds magazines to your mail. Woody is set on going to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his million dollars and, in the first scene of the film, he is walking the highway on his way. His wife Kate (June Squibb) is fed up with his meandering dream and wants to put him in a home. She wants their son David (Will Forte) to talk some sense in to him, but he eventually appeases his father and takes him on a road trip to Lincoln. It might be Woody's last trip, or dream, and if it can please his father, he is willing to do it.
Right away you can see that Woody is fighting old age. He has been drinking heavily since his return from the Korean War and it has had an unpleasant effect on himself and his familial relationship. Woody could be facing Alzheimer's and just the unavoidable slowing of his body, but he wants to get his million dollars. He wants a new truck, air compressor and to have something for his sons, the other one being Ross (Bob Odenkirk), when he passes. Woody has not been overtly successful or rich, but never dirt poor either. Late in the film, he desires this money to buy a new truck, which he has never done. You can see it in his eyes that this is it and he just wants some sort of fulfillment and completion to his existence. Woody is a cantankerous drunkard who has not always been there for his kids or wife, and maybe this cash will fill the void. The hope for financial glory played on the desperate and dreamers. The elderly coming to terms with impending death, trying to make right a wrong.
As the road trip continues on, Woody has one goal, to get to Lincoln. David wants to stop and see Mt. Rushmore and Woody is, of course, reluctant. They stop anyways and see it for a minute and Woody is instantly ready to go, complaining, with wonderful humor, that it is not complete and it is just a bunch of faces on a rock. They stop off in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where much of the film was actually shot, and time feels as if it has stopped. This is one thing that Payne is the best at. He captures the real look, feel and places of rural America. Nothing city-like or fancy. All the actors that played characters in Hawthorne look as if he picked them out of houses in the town. I grew up in a tiny town in Northern Wisconsin and I can appreciate this honesty on screen. He nails it. All anyone does is go to the tavern, talk about cars or hunting, and live in isolation, happily, for the most part. It is all they have ever known and most of them do not reach out to the expanses of the world, but stay right at home. Payne is a genius at getting this down perfectly.
The film also travels the sad realities of aging. We are going to have to witness, if they are still alive, are parents age and go through the stages that eventually lead to death. It is heartbreaking seeing Woody, who is played brilliantly by Mr. Dern, needing help walking up the stairs and being fairly delusional in his quest for his million dollars, but it does come with a sly smirk. He is a drunk and loses his teeth on the train tracks one night and busts his forehead open on another night from being too drunk. It is not all sorrow, but addiction and stupidity.
I cannot imagine anyone being Woody Grant other than Bruce Dern. It is such a quiet, subdued performance that you do not see enough of these days. He owes much to the wonderful screenplay from Bob Nelson, but Dern gives those long glances full of experienced eyes that show personal damage and an intense desire for quiet isolation. The scruffy demeanor and baggy Levi's exemplify a man that has lived his life and nothing more. Nothing needed. He served his country, worked his job, supported his family and desired, on the exterior, little else. A man that enjoyed plenty of nights at the tavern and beers on the couch. Dern is absolutely phenomenal as Woody and I loved every lived-in, reactionary note of his touching, hilarious portrayal.
I loved June Squibb just as much. Another lived-in, truthful performance, but one that is full of gossip and vitriol. Not evil, but a brutal honesty that cares little for what the other person thinks or cares. When she visits the boys in Hawthorne and they go to the cemetery to pay their respects, she lets loose on the dead Grant's. Calling the sister a whore and not holding back around her son David. Brilliant piece of acting And Will Forte. In his first dramatic role, he really nails it on all levels. What a casting choice. I was not sure at first because his delivery felt slightly forced and unnatural, but as the film went on, I believed his sincerity and resentment towards his father. Forte really expresses a son that missed his father throughout his life, but loves him just as much. And I have to mention a rather cynical, conniving turn from Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, a former business partner of Woody's in Hawthorne that is out for money he feels Woody owes him. Great acting from all involved.
This appears to be a very personal film for Payne. Being from Omaha, he has presented Nebraska as it is and as it will be. There are moments of social commentary that mention the impact of the economic crisis, but nothing forced or didactic. A journey and road trip for fathers and sons. A learning experience on lessons not taught or left at the end of a bottle. Payne blends compassion, honesty and humor efficiently, and like a true academic. He and the Coen's are the absolute best at making films and characters that feel true, honest and do not look like a imagined Hollywood creation. These people are real. Nothing fake. Even though this may not be as profound as Sideways or About Schmidt, it feels small in scale and large with feeling and realism. The black and white cinematography from the immensely talented Phedon Papamichael makes everything look as if it is stopped in time. The towns, lights and pastures are emblems of a unchanging landscape of simplicity, repetition and safety. I cannot imagine seeing this film in color. It just would not to be the same or work as well.
Nebraska has turned out to be one, amongst a crowded field, of my favorite films of 2013. A beautifully told, flawlessly acted film about love, time and the importance of relationships. I cannot speak highly enough of Dern and Squibb, who are just so damn perfect. Dern, the legend, is so spot-on throughout and Squibb delivers some of the best lines of the year. Payne's Nebraska is one of those films I hope he continues to make. One on the everyday lives of real, honest people. Nothing phony, just an honest examination of life and all its challenges and faults. This film just affirms my appreciation for Alexander Payne and I am thankful we have a talented, understanding filmmaker like him putting truth on the screen.
Photo credit by IMDB.