Nebraska” returns to this subject but from a different perspective. It’s not an aging, disapproving father wearyingly looking at his daughter’s marriage. Nor a father and rebellious teenage daughter learning to find common ground. Instead, “Nebraska” focuses on an adult age son looking back on his elderly father’s life, discovering the things they have in common.
“Nebraska” has widely been framed as a late-career revival for Bruce Dern. Dern, once a leading man in the seventies, has mostly been in small roles in small movies for the last few decades. Woody Grant is an unlikely hero and a good fit for Dern’s laconic charm. At first, the audience wonders if Woody’s sleepy reaction to most of the things around is a result of not paying attention or a deteriorating mind. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Woody’s brain is starting to go. However, he’s not a weak, senile old man. Instead, his actions have motivators. Slowly, the film reveals a life full of small losses, compromises that have taken their toll. Dern’s weathered face conveys weight, his lonely eyes and slouching posture subtly showing his buried sorrows. Upon first appearance, he’s pointed at where he’s been, nodding quietly. He then points forward, certain in where he’s going.
Woody proves the most lovable when suddenly energized. Convinced he’s won a million from a mail-in contest, he wanders off on the road to claim the dubious money, much to the frustrations of his nagging wife and adult sons. When son David takes pity on his illing father, and his mother gets fed up with the old man wandering off, he decides to take Woody on one last road trip. My favorite moments are when Dern shows how excited his character is. The two searching a train track for his missing teeth is amusing, slowly giving us a peak into the old man’s mind. Woody waking David up, determined to get his money today, shows the elderly man in an unusually spry moment. After loosing his paper in town, Woody seems at lost. Until David suggests they look for it. At which point the old man is on his feet, ready to go. Even a brief stay in a hospital isn’t enough to keep him off the road.
Aside from Dern and Forte, another strong force in “Nebraska” is June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering wife. Or is Woody the long-suffering one? It’s hard to imagine how such a quiet old man fell in with a loud-mouth spit-fire. Squibb is a force of nature here, cussing and joking. Over the years, her patience for her husband’s habits has only shortened. Upon stepping off a bus, she greets her husband of so many years not with a hug and a kiss but rather a shorten swear. Squibb’s strongest moment, bound to be her Oscar clip, is when she visits the local cemetery. David and Woody stay back, quiet. Kate goes to each grave, talking about the deceased, the rumors and gossip of their lives. How their paths crossed, what she remembers. Kate spares no words, calling her close friend a slut and a brother an idiot. Squibb creates a real human being, an old woman full of piss and vinegar. The Academy got it right, June more then earning her nomination.
Alexander Payne’s films often have a degree of humor in them, even if they’re telling very sad stories. “Nebraska” might, in actuality, be one of the director’s funniest films. It features humor quite a bit broader then his past efforts, playing up the director’s talent for the absurd the most since “Election.” Upon being reunited with his extended family in Nebraska, some unusual characters come out of the woodwork. When learning that a family member is coming into some money, folks start showing up, asking for money. This comes to blows rather comically with the other son, Bob Odenkirk’s Ross. Two nephews, twins, are great big rednecks, figuratively and literally. One just got out of jail for rape. They wind up jumping the old man outside a bar, stealing his ticket. The whole situation is so absurd that you can’t help but laugh.
Which isn’t to say that “Nebraska” isn’t without deeply sad moments. Hawthorne is a real dead-end town. The whole place seems to be a single street, a garage and a bar the only spot around. The treatment he receives from some of his old “friends’ is ghastly. Stacy Keach plays the film’s more-or-less villain. He has some personal grudge against Woody from years ago and is determined to get repaid. When he tells David about a painful period of his father’s past, Dern only looks aside, quiet, his eyes a million miles away. Another person in town, Angela McEwan as Peg Nagy, was an old lover of Woody, years before he met David’s mother. The son meets with the old woman, learning more about his father in that one minute then he knew in a lifetime. The quietest, saddest moment in the film comes when the family visits Woody’s childhood home, abandoned but still standing. The camera watches, quietly, as the old man looks through the rooms, out the windows. It doesn’t express what he’s thinking, Dern’s face showing a lifetime of regrets and thoughts. “Nebraska” rarely goes for big emotion, instead reaching for quiet, sad truths.
There’s been some words written about the director’s decision to shoot the film in black-and-white. My first thought was that Payne made the decision as a deliberate reference to stark character studies of the seventies, especially “The Last Picture Show,” a definite influence. Instead, the choice seems to have been made to reflect the wide, flat landscape of the setting. “Nebraska” is a soft, personal story but Payne’s decision to shoot the film in wide, huge shots makes the personal very large. It’s an uncommonly pretty movie.