Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hours, 55 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election)
All Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) wants in life is a new truck and his old air compressor back from a friend he "loaned" it to 40 years ago. When we meet Woody - a hobbled, grizzled, unshaven and soft-spoken old coot - he is slowly meandering down the side of a highway, intent on walking all the way from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. As director Alexander Payne's poetic, poignant, Nebraska (opening today) will eventually show us, this may be the first time in Woody's life when he knows where he's headed.
Shot entirely in beautiful shades of black and white, Nebraska has a lot to say. This is the exact opposite of the film's subject, Woody, who rarely speaks. Living a simple, uneventful and rural existence with his nagging wife, Kate (June Squibb), Woody keeps sneaking out of the house on foot as he tries to make his way to Lincoln. It is there where he will be able to claim his million dollar prize. He believes he won the prize because he received a sweepstakes letter in the mail.
Most people would be able to decipher that the letter is most likely a scam. Woody's two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) tell him so, but nothing seems to shake Woody's spirit.
Ross is preoccupied with a wife and a few kids, but David - who works at an electronics store - sees an opportunity to provide his dad with some peace. Much to the chagrin of his mom, he agrees to take off a few days of work and drive his dad down to Lincoln, knowing that it is a fool's journey. This trip will kill two birds: It will appease his father but it will also hopefully give the two some much-needed quality time together.
Woody is also a drunk and it seems he always has been. After a mishap on the first night, Woody ends up in the hospital with stitches. This derails their trip a bit and they have to push off Lincoln until after the weekend. Killing time for those two days until Monday, they decide to invite mom down with them and they all bunk up at David's aunt's house in the small hometown where Woody grew up.
While in town, David takes his dad around to show him some sights and to learn some history about himself and his family. Woody bumps in to an old business partner and lets him in on his million dollar prize win. In this sort of town, the news spreads almost instantly. Suddenly, Woody finds himself painted as a celebrity.
What a beautiful film when all is said and done. As Woody and David make their way around the old town, David tries desperately to understand his father...to know his father. It's a struggle, to say the least. But watching David try to relate to his father is at times heart-warming and at other times heart-breaking.
The magnificent, layered performance by Bruce Dern is the film's biggest draw. It's the best performance of his career. And who would have thought that SNL alum and resident doofus Will Forte could be so subtle and sweet. The two carry the film and the smart script gives them room to portray even the slightest of emotions with just a glance, a shrug, or a facial expression.
This is also a very funny film, in a deadpan sort of way. Some of the best scenes in the movie revel in that uncomfortable sort of humor. Payne sometimes crams up to ten or more people in the frame at once and holds the camera on them for a few beats longer than we can stand, as the characters awkwardly exchange small talk. June Squibb is a scene-stealer as well, with her foul-mouth and promiscuous past.
Everything about the movie gives off a reverence of nostalgia and what has come before, and I'd guess that this is at least partially why the decision was made to shoot it in black and white. Black and white are not just the colors of the past, but the look also represents a time where things were much more simple, more defined, more clear-cut. We all have equally empty memories of places, things and times in our own lives that still hold meaning to us. This film captures a certain something...the sadness of time, the realities of life and the desolation that ultimately comes with growing old.
Nebraska is clearly a film more interested in looking at life through the rear-view as opposed to what's ahead. Here is a man - Woody - whose entire life has been a series of missteps, held down in life by circumstances and his own vices. This faux million dollar prize is Woody's only purpose in life, a way for him to right some of the numerous wrongs he's accumulated throughout his tumultuous years on this planet. David on the other hand, is desperate to understand this poor soul, with an instinctive curiosity about his dad that only a son can understand. Truly, Woody possesses no redeeming qualities when you think about it. He is as much a shell of a person as his old home is an echo of his early family.
There are imperfect developments...some townsfolk get a little too cliched when clamoring around, hoping to get in on Woody's new-found fortune. Much of the dialogue early on seems generic and stilted, as if actors are reading off of cue cards.
But the spirit of Nebraska is a powerful one, for all of it's tenderness. Not many films capture such relatable humanity. Dern - at the ripe old age of 77 - is a revelation. Alexander Payne has created a modern film that looks as if it was plucked out of the past, a time capsule that shows the dangers of living life in the present without thought of the future.
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