Bruce Dern leads us to the promised land in "Nebraska"
Director Alexander Payne has followed up his award winning film, “The Descendants,” with a road movie titled “Nebraska.” As in all his films, Mr. Payne shows us what happens to ordinary people when they decide to break out of their mundane lives in search of purpose. “Nebraska” follows the exploits of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who, after receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail claiming he’s won a million dollars, decides to collect. His journey disrupts the whole Grant clan and in doing so allows Mr. Payne to shine a light on a part of the country – and the people who inhabit it – that very few movies do.
Woody, when we first see him, is walking along a Billings, Montana highway in the middle of winter. He looks like he’s off his rocker. A highway patrolman picks him up and returns him home. The cause for his antics is the sweepstakes letter which he ignores or just doesn’t believe the fact it’s possible that the claim could be misleading. Or it could be, like the beginning of this movie, his life was sparse and decides to interject it with something out of the ordinary. His family thinks he’s nuts. But Woody’s relentlessness wears on his younger son, David (Will Forte), who decides to fulfill his father’s whim and drive him across three states to Lincoln, Nebraska, to show him that the whole thing is a scam. Before they arrive, however, they stop along the way, including at Woody’s boyhood town of Hawthorne, Nebraska.
The road trip is where the story begins to show some spark. David tries to connect with his father but Woody, being from that generation that doesn’t open up, makes it a rough chore. When we see Woody with his family of siblings we begin to suspect that he isn’t crazy at all; moping and silence seem to be an inherited trait. David is joined by his mother, Kate (June Squibb) and older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to dissuade Woody from his adventure. It’s when Kate hits town that the movie heats up. Not one for introspective pauses or polite conversation, she causes a bit of a scandal by calling it the way she sees things. She has no qualms about revealing negative qualities about anybody, family, saint or otherwise. Kate may be the motivation for Woody’s trek across the Midwest, during the winter, in pursuit of fool’s gold. The family bicker over Woody’s actions until they have to defend themselves from old friends and extended family who ask for some portion of the money to pay back favors that may or may not exist.
“Nebraska” is a rare movie where its main character doesn’t grow or become wiser by the final credits. Mr. Dern is on key as a determined man seeking a prize, or some validation, no matter what obstacles lay in front of him. The first thought is that he may be senile but as the movie reflects on his life it just might be the one time he does something for himself. It’s an interesting performance. The note is the same from the first images of Woody to the end. What changes is our perception of him. Mr. Forte’s acting improves throughout the movie. While they’re still in Billings, Mr. Forte seems to be acting in a student film. He is a little too showy with his emotions and doesn’t seem to really feel them. It becomes a distraction. By the end, whether I got used to it or he started getting more comfortable with his performance, it turned natural. Or maybe Ms. Squibb is such a firecracker during her screen time that everybody else’s performance doesn’t get a chance to get off the ground.
The real treat in “Nebraska,” however, is watching the performance of Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram. Ed is the bully from the old neighborhood who hasn’t changed much over the years. He isn’t life threatening but he is an ugly disruption of daily life. Mr. Keach is so smooth as this weasel that you can see how he holds the locals’ loyalty at the local watering hole while knowing he would betray anyone of them at the drop of a hat. The most exciting scenes are when Mr. Dern and Mr. Keach, two old veterans, work their skills off each other. The writing of the scenes also work with these characters since one of them is trying to connive the other out of something that doesn’t exist. Mr. Payne gives “Nebraska” an old world feel by shooting it in black and white. The choice is appropriate since we are visiting with characters whose time has come and gone. By the look of the towns Woody and David pass through it isn’t hard to imagine that they looked and felt the same way decades ago. It’s also a mentality of small town U.S.A that dominates the people of these towns that might have pushed Woody toward his adventure. But Woody gets his prize in the end and so do we in this wonderful look at another part of the country rarely seen.