Nebraska: Alexander Payne and Bruce Dern Take the Road to Nowhere

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Movies



Nebraska is this year’s road trip movie from Alexander Payne and his second to feature a grumpy old man (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt was first).  Shot in a dehydrated black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne’s and George Clooney’s regular light painter, every frame echoes a dying vision of the American Midwest.  The Nebraska here is a state of old men and women living in the last squalor of their broken dreams, beaten down, clinging to false hope– the false hope being Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) belief that the worthless Clearing House ticket in his possession is really worth a million bucks.  This Cornhusker community acts like the avarice stooges looking for their share of the hero’s fortune typical of a Preston Sturges comedy. 

Woody’s son David (Will Forte) sensing a chance to mend their broken relationship humors his father by being the chauffeur on the wild goose chase to Lincoln, bad fortune and scalp stitches being the catalyst that gets the rest of the family, older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and matronly scourge and Woody’s spouse Kate (June Squibb) back to his hometown of Hawthorne.  The past hangs heavy over Nebraska, but it is regretful and not nostalgic.  Payne never answers the question whether Woody’s frequent road wanderings are due to senility, depression, or a deep desire to squeeze something positive out of a less than perfect life.  All the audience knows is that in some way David helps Woody find what he is searching for and needs and maybe in the end, briefly achieve it.   David is the compassion of a son respecting their father’s experience if not necessarily their wisdom, knowing that by only the grace of God he has escaped the misfortunes and weaknesses (alcohol the primary one) that have shadowed his father’s existence.   

Bruce Dern gives Woody an odd mixture of blankness, hunger and ferocity that perfectly captures the feeling of a man at the end of his life.  It is easy to understand Woody’s urge for adventure even if the result is Quixotic. Woody is too passive to be evil yet too aloof to be charming.  Neither is he heroic nor noble.  Yet his stubbornness and his unacknowledged emotions make him a character worth caring about. 

Dern unfolds the layers of Woody’s humanity in perfect sync with the story.  The anger is there captured in the movies tone, but yet still buried deep inside Woody, and trembling out occasionally.  Like everyone, Woody holds onto his dignity by a hair.  

Payne returns to his Nebraska roots whenever he seeks his most personal film making. More than half his films are set there.  Payne, a child of Greek/German/Greek descent grew up in Omaha.  His full name is Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos.  The angry whining of Kate is both a screed and an ode of love that expresses his delicate relationship with his home state.  His tone, a balance of wordless contemplation and madcap humor, reflects the soul of every Cornhusker. 

Nebraska gets an A from me.  



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