Featuring: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Movie website: www.paramount.com/movies/nebraska
Australian release date: Thursday, 20 Feb
rolanstein: A beautifully written and performed dramedy, wryly funny in its bleak assessment of America’s small-town mid-west.
Karen: Beautifully rendered shmaltz.
Old-timer of few words Woody (Bruce Dern) receives a marketing letter with a million dollar prize enticement, which he misinterprets as notification that he has won. His family cannot convince him otherwise or dissuade him from the folly of travelling from their home in Montana to the marketing company’s office in Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his prize. Son Dave (Will Forte) finally offers to drive him, which opens the opportunity for a family reunion en route in the small town in which Woody and his wife (June Squibb) grew up. Word soon gets around among the long-term locals that Woody has returned a millionaire, which has a catalytic effect in exposing the duplicity and greed lurking beneath the sleepy and seemingly benign facade of the town. In coming up against his past, Woody’s sons discover surprising sides to their taciturn father.
Like the octogenarian lead character, Woody, and the decaying small town he hails from, this deceptively modest and frequently chuckleworthy little film has a lot more going on beneath its surface than meets the eye.
The always wonderful Bruce Dern thrives in his role as Woody, playing off the sparest of dialogue. When he speaks at all, it’s in gruff monosyllables wherever possible, giving nothing away. He’s a flawed character – an inveterate boozer and not much of a father or provider going by the constantly withering (and for the viewer, funny) assessments of his sharp-tongued and apparently long-suffering wife.
In refusing to budge from his stubborn and obviously mistaken belief that he has won a million bucks, he exasperates his family, two members of which advocate putting him to pasture in a nursing home. Only the protests of kindly son Dave save him.
While Woody doesn’t seem to have much going for him as a character, it’s a plus that he is not materialistically driven. When asked by his family what he would buy with a million dollars, the best he can come up with is a new pickup truck and a compressor to replace one he lent decades ago that was never returned. And against the odds, Dern makes him fascinating, vulnerable, endearing. For all his shortfalls, near-dementia and paucity of expression, he comes across as a tough but ailing old bird without a malevolent bone in his body, whose still waters run deeper than, well, a pothole in a country road.
Hidden aspects to his character are gradually revealed through the interactions of his wife and sons with home town locals from his past, the occasional illuminating grunt from Woody, and a superbly managed scene of great pathos in which barely articulated memories of some painfully harsh parenting are triggered during a visit to his now-derelict childhood home. These are unusual modes of characterisation, brilliantly executed.
Parallel with the unlayering of Woody’s character, but to starkly contrasting effect, the benignly hokey – some might say ‘quaint’ – façade of his sleepy, fading mid-west home town and its inhabitants is stripped away by degrees to reveal a dark side. As with any community, there are vipers nesting in its midst. Never the angel without the devil.
While Dern makes the movie his own, he is well supported. June Squibb has a lot of fun playing Woody’s wife. She’s a bit of a stock character of comedy: the shockingly irreverent and perpetually negative elderly matron who says the unsayable (even – actually, especially – about her deceased relatives as she walks among their headstones). With Squibb’s treatment, she’s a hoot.
As are Woody’s unemployed fat slob 30-something nephews (played by Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll, who you’d swear were brothers, if not twins). These oafs lounge around in dull silence watching TV until the subject of cars and time taken to drive from place A to place B comes up, whereupon they perk up, managing a hoonish boast or two before falling back into their somnolent state.
Sad-eyed Will Forte is terrific as Dave, who has inherited his father’s best (albeit deeply submerged) qualities of kindness and generosity – a case of generational evolution, if ever there was one. It is fittingly feel-good that Woody is the beneficiary of Dave’s compassionate nature.
The movie is filmed in black and white, which lends mood and enhances the anachronistic feel of the small mid-west town in which most of the action takes place. However, while the quality of the cinematography is never in doubt (notably, some strikingly elegant scene composition), it is debatable whether the black and white medium, which is best suited to interior settings, is fully exploited. I say not. The exterior shots of the Nebraskan countryside, in particular – and there are quite a few of them – seem a little the poorer for the absence of colour.
This is small bickies though. Otherwise, there is not much to fault about this hugely enjoyable flick. It’s a delight with bite. Highly recommended.
Oh dear. Here’s another film that I really wanted to love, and couldn’t. What I thought was going to be a beautiful, character-driven, muted hero’s journey turned out to be a beautiful, somewhat snide, character-driven hero’s journey that reinforced outdated materialist values and ideas of manliness.
Let me unpack that. Nebraska is beautiful, there’s no doubt. The landscape of middle America is rendered in washy silvers and greys that perfectly evoke the frozen-in-time quality of the community our hero finds himself transported to. The exteriors, interiors and characters are exemplars of the American gothic: austere, simple, and kind of creepy.
“Transported to” is not quite right. David Grant (Will Forte) makes a conscious decision to drive his father Woody (Bruce Dern) from their home in Montana to Nebraska to claim a spurious million-dollar sweepstakes prize. He, his awful mother Kate (June Squibb) and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) all know that the marketing letter Woody has received from a generic publishing company is not going to deliver the promised million, but David is in a particular dead end: his girlfriend has departed, citing his indecision about their relationship, and his career in home-theatre audio sales is in the doldrums. Have you heard of “resting bitch-face”? Will Forte has resting sad-sack – or he’s a damn good actor. He looks defeated by life, but he’s both ready to make a change, and willing to put in an effort with his dad, who is doggedly striking out on foot daily – having relinquished his driver’s licence long ago because of his Alzheimer’s disease – to claim the money.
For David, the journey is a chance to honour his father’s autonomy, and maybe connect with him for the first time while chasing the dream. At this stage I was still quite hopeful about the film. It was clear that the brothers’ relationship with Woody had been far from ideal, and I imagined that the journey would enable a reconciliation of sorts. And it does, sort of. But the reconciliation and denouement are so sentimental and so mired in traditional materialistic values that I was sort of revolted!
Of course, along the way David acquires new knowledge, specifically about his father, which forces him to reevaluate what it means to be a man. The plot devices around this are quite amusing, but the folks encountered who deliver the knowledge are little more than cartoon characters held up for derision. It’s certainly easy to laugh at the piggish cousins whose only conversation is how long David took to drive from his place to theirs, and there’s lots of nonsense about manliness here around what kind of car a man might drive as well as how fast he drives it. It’s less easy to laugh about Kate, whose crudeness seems to surprise even her son, and which is in the service of humour only. Surely she could have been loquacious – in the service of exposition – without being so oddly repulsive. (Although there are a couple of scenes where Kate shines, with, variously, tenderness, shrewdness and loyalty.) And I was massively disappointed when at a pivotal moment, David appears to have discovered his mature manhood, but second-guesses himself with an action that can only perpetuate stupid ideas about how a man ought to behave. I wish I could be more explicit here.
Beautiful performances and beautiful cinematography are enhanced by a music score that adds a melancholy, elegiac tone that is completely at odds with a representation of the less admirable aspects of American life.
Those beautiful performances are worth watching: Bruce Dern as the damaged, dogged Korean War vet; Will Forte as the puzzled Everyman doing his best to be a good person; and the ensemble supporters, none of whom strikes a bum note.
But at the core, this is just more of the same old American manure.
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