Dec 25, 2013
Alexander Payne is a master at satire that can be brutal yet sympathetic to its characters. Like the great Italian Neorrealists, Payne has come up with a jewel of a movie that makes you laugh and breaks your heart, sometimes at the same time.
Nebraska portrays the epic journey of Woody Grant, a landlocked Midwestern man, (Bruce Dern), in this case, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody gets a piece of junk mail informing him that he has won a million dollars and he needs to collect the prize in person. Being a lifelong drunk and in the throes of incipient dementia, he seems to have lost the will to live, but he is suddenly energized by the task, and no force on Earth, not his long suffering son David, (Will Forte) or his exasperated wife (June Squibb) will discourage him. We first see him walking purposefully along an interstate, creaking with age and will power. He can't drive, because he has a suspended license. If you can't drive in these parts, you might as well be dead.
Bruce Dern gives a performance so immense and so subtle, that some people may think he is not doing anything. It's all in his eyes. Sometimes they are vacant, lost who knows where, but then he focuses and it's as if his mind is suddenly engaged and back on Earth. He doesn't speak much. At times he may remind you of a dog whose face lights up when he understands a command; sometimes you wonder if he is conveniently pretending to be deaf, especially around his wife. There is not one shred of artifice or exaggeration, not one false note in Dern's acting: it is miraculous. He most deservedly won the best actor prize at Cannes and hopefully he will be a front runner at the Academy Awards. It would be righteous for Dern to cap his career with this long deserved honor. He has always been a spectacular actor, but this is a role you never thought you'd see him in. He breaks your heart.
Nebraska is the saddest comedy you've ever seen. It's a family story, and not a happy one. In the bleak Midwestern nothingness, which Payne and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, shoot in lucid black and white, these people stick to each other even though they seem to have lost their love long ago. Woody's wife Kate is a bundle of vicious resentment and a repository of quaint Midwestern insults. She is so bitter, she's the kind of person who badmouths people at their graves. She is hateful, until the filmmakers give her a moment of grace that portrays her in a whole new light. The film is full of such surprises. As in life, we learn along the way that people are not what they seem, and that their histories contain chapters we know nothing about. As David and Woody travel through the almost surreal emptiness, revisiting people and places of the past, David learns much about his father.
This is a movie about enduring love in both senses of the word: enduring in that it lasts, and enduring in that it takes much sacrifice to withstand it. It is about the kind of love that remains, dulled and almost vanquished by disappointment, regret and failure, but somehow still throbs in there. It takes one crazy notion by a seemingly crazy old guy, to make it start beating again.
But Nebraska is more than a family road trip. Payne is a poet of the Midwest; since he grew up in Omaha, he knows what he's talking about. In the heartland, not far beneath the down home politeness, there is a hard streak in people. As the story spreads that Woody has made a bundle, the greedy come out of the woodwork. Some sweet people who are genuinely happy for him, but there are those with long forgotten grudges, and they want to collect. All sorts of claims come out. Who do you believe? Woody was a difficult man, but his greatest mistake was that he could not say no to anybody. And now, at the end of his life, he is paying the price of his guile and lack of ambition; sins in this country.
Nebraska is as much a movie about the cruelty of American greed, call it individualism or unbridled capitalism, as it is about fathers and sons and long forgotten personal histories.
This is Alexander Payne's most mature and magnificent film. It has a grander stature, deeper emotions, and its tone, aided by beautiful music by Mark Orton, is perfect.
So far, my favorite film of the year.