Review: Nebraska

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Whenever I’m out driving and see someone walking along a highway I think to myself that they must have an interesting story. The first image in Alexander Payne’s latest fine film, Nebraska, is the perpetually stooped figure of Woody Grant, slowly making his way down the road. He does have an interesting story.

Woody is headed toward Lincoln, Nebraska. The problem is he’s in Billings, Montana. He has received a letter in the mail from one of those publishing clearing house firms that has promised him a million dollars. Most of us read the fine print and see that it’s conditional on having the winning number. But Woody, confused in his old age, can’t or won’t see it.

His wife, Kathy, thinks he’s a “dumb cluck.” One son, a TV reporter, tries to make him see reason. But his younger son, David, eventually takes pity on him and decides to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way they stop in Woody’s home town and visit relatives and old friends. Some things are learned along the way.

Payne, who has set many of his films in his native state of Nebraska, walks a tightrope here. He displays the habits and behavior of the taciturn people of the Great Plains with what some would call affection and others might call mockery. I lean toward affection, as I recognized a lot of this behavior in my people, and I expect almost everyone would, no matter where they were raised. A tableau of Woody and his brothers watching TV is like the 21st century version of American Gothic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Woody Grant is a sideways version of the painter of that work, Grant Wood.

Shot in breathtaking black and white by Phedon Papamichael that suggests Walker Evans photographs, the austerity of the plains is brought into sharp focus. We get the lonely highways, the boarded up storefronts, the signs missing letters, the silos in the twilight. The photography also shows every bit of wear and tear these people have endured on their faces. Woody, with that hunch and a nimbus of uncombed snow white hair, looks every bit of what must be almost eight decades on the planet.

There is so much to like here. The script by Bob Nelson may be a little contrived–the central conceit of a man duped by a marketing scheme may have some truth in it, but it barely holds up. The son, played solidly by Will Forte, isn’t fully developed. We see him as a stereo salesman, and breaking up with a girlfriend, but we don’t know much about him, and I’m always baffled by films where a grown child knows nothing about his parents, but that’s just me. The ending also gives in a bit to sentimentality.

But Nelson also has a fine ear for the dialogue of such people. When asked how by his son why he had kids, Woody replies, “I liked screwing, and your mother is a Catholic.” He also responds to the question of whether he ever had regrets about marrying Kathy by quickly saying, “All of the time.”

As a director, Payne adds some wonderful touches, such as having Stacy Keach, as Woody’s old partner, sing karaoke (Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto”), and magnificently uses the talents of June Squibb, an actress getting the part of her lifetime as Kathy. She is most memorable in a scene in the home town cemetery, commenting with brutal honest about the interred, such as Woody’s sister Rose, who died when she was 19. “Whore,” she says. She also lets out a rousing “Go fuck yourself” to the family members who want a piece of Woody’s mythical prize winnings.

What this film will most be remembered for is Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody. An actor who has specialized in playing oddballs for fifty years, Woody is his crowning achievement. He is a man who has said little his whole life, and is now slowly losing his faculties. He can’t drive, but he wants a new truck. He’s an alcoholic, but he’s also generous to a fault. When Keach, who turns bilious, reminds him of an affair he had, in front of Forte, the shame he feels his palpable, even though his face doesn’t register much. Another scene has him visiting the farmhouse where he grew up. He looks in on the room where his brother died of scarlet fever, and his parents’ room, where he was taken to be whipped. “I guess nobody’s going to whip me now,” he says.

Nebraska is also laugh out loud funny, and very touching in that familiar way that relationships between fathers and sons are portrayed. I laughed and got a little lump in my throat at a shot late in the film while Dern is wearing a hat that says “Prize Winner.” Dern, if there’s any justice, will be in the running for lots of prizes this award season. He’s already won at Cannes.

My grade for Nebraska: A-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

7 responses »

  1. This might be the most we’ve ever disagreed on a movie, because I hated every minute of this movie. I hated the stupid contrived story, I hated the pointless black-and-white photography, I hated Payne’s relentless contempt of almost everyone in the movie (the only exceptions are the nice newspaper lady, who still gets dumped on in the end, and to some extent Squibb’s character, although she doesn’t escape unscathed either so isn’t really an exception). I hated Forte’s lame-ass, wholly incapable performance and I hated his stupid character in the first place. I even hated Dern’s performance, although I don’t wholly blame him, because this character is so bafflingly conceived and written that I don’t know how anyone could make sense of it.

    For example, you say that his reaction to Pegram’s revelation about the affair was “shame”, but I didn’t really get that at all. Or at least, there are other things that it could have just as well have been. Maybe he was furious at Pegram for talking so callously about the woman he loved. Maybe he was consumed by regret that he didn’t follow his one true love. Maybe he barely remembered that it even happened but is angry at Pegram for making him look small in front of his son. Or Pegram is intentionally misrepresenting details and Woody doesn’t want to argue in front of his son because he knows it’ll just make him look guilty. All of those things could have worked just as well within Dern’s taciturn-to-the-point-of-nothingness performance. He’s a blank slate of a character created by people who had no idea who they wanted the character to be or why.

    It’s no secret that I’ve always disliked Payne but this is easily his worst, most irritating work. It’s like everything bad about Payne rolled into one. It’s a miserable film.

  2. In terms of Payne’s film career, this reminded me a fair bit of ‘About Schmidt’ albeit with a more upbeat ending. I don’t think this is quite up to the standard of Payne’s 1996-2002 work, but it’s definitely a step up from ‘The Descendants’ and probably slightly better than ‘Sideways’.

    It didn’t start off particularly promisingly though, with the first 30 minutes being S-L-O-W for no good reason. Payne’s sharp social observation and incisiveness and observation that defined his early film replaced by lots and lots of shots of the barren American landscape and rundown suburbs. All very pretty in b&w and indeed showing a side of America rarely seen in films but it got repetitive real fast.

    However, once we arrived to Woody’s home town and meeting up with his family, the film clicked into gear. I particularly liked how Payne and Dern portrayed Woody’s character – I was half-dreading a scene where Woody changes from his largely mono-syllabic persona to having a big speech that defines the movie but they admirably stuck to his guns.

    And the result is that despite his introverted, repressed persona, Woody comes through as a sad, rather tragic figure. Scenes where he takes the ticket from Ed Pegram without any malice or where he ventures through his old family home are moving and memorable.

    Also great was June Squibb, who got the chance to develop on the mark she left in Payne’s earlier ‘About Schmidt’ into a really memorable role. In the early scenes she seems like a wife who has been a nightmare for Woody but in the film’s latter stages we see how protective she is of him and why they’ve managed to stay married for so long.

    I thought Will Forte was good as David but he was saddled with a rather rote character, who seemed to somewhat only function to the needs of the narrative.

    I was slightly disappointed by the last 20 minutes or so as I found some of the choices David made rather unconvincing and thought the final scene was rather too upbeat (although rather charming). Nowhere near the effectiveness of ‘About Schmidt’s finale.

    All in all, a not total return to form for Payne, but this is his best film for over a decade.

    Rating: B

  3. I should add that the two moronic brothers who mock David for his supposed lack of driving speed were the sort of characters who support the theory (not one I necessarily agree with) that Payne sneers at too many of his characters. At the very least, the scene with them stealing the ticket was the sort of unnecessary silliness that sometimes sidetrack a Payne film.

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