Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a wonderful little film, hospital blessed with a first-rate script, doctor gorgeous monochrome photography and a fine understated cast. But its secret weapon, even more powerful than all those blessings, is the lingering effect of Bruce Dern’s haunted gaze.

Dern, 78, has one of the most rewarding roles of his long career as Woody Grant, a reality-challenged former mechanic who’s quietly drinking his life away in Billings, Montana. Cranky and remote, Woody is a lost soul who barely speaks to his wife and two grown sons, a man who seems to have lost all reason to live…until he receives a piece of junk mail that changes his life.

The letter is a thinly disguised Publishers Clearing House flier soliciting magazine subscriptions, but the part that registers with Woody is the classic come-on telling him that he may have won a million dollars. Convinced that he’s hit the jackpot, Woody sets out on foot to make the 800-mile trip to the company’s home office in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his fortune.

It’s the first of several attempts by Woody to hoof it across state lines, and eventually his son David (Will Forte) – a mild-mannered electronics salesman who’s starting to feel as useless as his old man – decides to gamble a road trip to Lincoln in the hope of finally bonding with the father he’s never really known. Along the way, a drunken Woody manages to injure himself, and they decide to take a side trip to give him time to pull himself together before continuing on to Lincoln.

That detour is to Hawthorne, Nebraska, the small town where Woody grew up. It’s a run-down little burg a million miles from anybody’s idea of an economic recovery, filled with some good-hearted souls and more than a few hopeless bitter jerks. At first, Woody is received as a feeble-minded old face from the past…but when he begins rambling about the million dollars he’s on his way to collect, people start miraculously remembering old debts and things start to turn ugly.

Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have crafted a quiet, sad and frequently funny story about a family that discovers it was never quite as broken as its members thought it was, brought to life by a talented group of actors who effortlessly occupy their roles. Forte is quite fine as a decent soft-spoken schlub who slowly evolves from grudging and embarrassed babysitter for his wrecked father to a respectful and protective son. Character actress June Squibb is a revelation as Woody’s deceptively sharp-tongued wife, walking away with half the scenes she appears in, and Bob Odenkirk as David’s not-as-shallow-as-he-seems brother turns in first-rate comic support. Stacy Keach also scores with a vaguely sinister performance as one of Woody’s old Hawthorne cronies with a plan to benefit from his former friend’s good fortune.

But as good as everyone is, it remains Bruce Dern’s picture all the way. The consistency of his hazy and wounded character is utterly admirable, never deigning to play for our sympathy yet managing to capture it nonetheless. It’s a quiet and magnificent performance, the spine and soul of a lovely example of American moviemaking.

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December 31, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

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