The small and medium towns in the Midwest and the Great Plains region aren’t so different from any other part—rural, urban or in between—of the United States. Half the people don’t talk much, while the other half chatter to fill the silence. It’s a time-honored cliché according to Garrison Keillor, but there’s truth in it.
And there truly are a million or more men in this country like Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the tight-lipped subject of Alexander Payne’s latest film, Nebraska.
Throughout Bob Nelson’s tidy, well-ordered screenplay, Woody’s wife, his sons, his distant relations and his old, dubious friends from back home drop little bits of biographical detail regarding the addled, irritable, melancholy soul at the movie’s center. We learn he’s a lifelong alcoholic; a Korean War veteran who saw too much carnage; and he wasn’t much of a father. He may also have early-onset dementia.
And now, having received a magazine subscription flier in the mail with his name on it, he believes himself to be the lucky winner of a million-dollar sweepstakes, and he is determined to travel from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the grand prize.
This is a road-trip story. Woody, given to wandering off on his own, finds a traveling companion in his younger son, David, who sells electronics in Billings and whose recent breakup has left him in a state of stasis. Why not, David figures. Why not give the old man a ride and indulge his fantasy? Eventually Woody’s wife, Kate, whose first sentence onscreen is a forthright “You dumb cluck!” and his “go-getter” Billings TV-anchor son meet up with the men for an uneasy reunion in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody and Kate grew up and met.
Nebraska is less a movie than a feature-length equivalent of a wry comic ballad, observing some ordinary lives. A lot of Payne’s film, his sixth feature, is funny, in that gently sardonic way distinguishing his best work. (I like Election, Sideways and The Descendants best so far.) Some of Nebraska feels thin and slightly misjudged—the broadly comic stuff with the idiot cousins, for example. The script, a tiny bit meager, digs only so far underneath anyone’s skin. But Payne, shooting in widescreen black and white with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, elevates the material with images, simply composed, of serious and paradoxically ordinary beauty. This is a movie that treats the lonely street outside a dingy small-town tavern with the same care as Payne shows his actors, beginning and ending with Dern.
Dern won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his portrayal—childlike and frightened one second, flinty and amusingly crusty the next —of a man who never amounted to much on paper. So much of direction is a matter of politely beating the acting out of an actor and encouraging easy-breathing, in-character behavior instead. Dern here does the least overt and most affecting work of his screen career, a career pockmarked with one too many bug-eyed psychos and head cases. His comic timing remains shrewdly unpredictable. Will Forte plays David, a sad sack eager to find out who’s in there, behind his father’s glazed eyes. Over beers one night, David broaches the subject of his parents’ marriage.
“You must’ve been in love,” David says, hoping for a “yes,” regarding his parents’ courtship. A quick, puzzled pause, and Dern answers: “Never came up.”
Dern and Forte are both effective, but my favorite performances in Nebraska belong to the women. As Kate, June Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s About Schmidt, feels authentic and true in every instance. And in the small role of the Hawthorne newspaper owner and editor who knew Woody when, luminous Angela McEwan works wonders in between the lines. Payne knows gold when he sees it: The close-up of McEwan near the end speaks volumes and evokes many things, wordlessly.
Much of Nebraska is ordinary prose, but the best parts are plain-spoken comic poetry, including the priceless tableau of a living room full of stoic men, drinking beer, watching a football game. Woody fits right in. Rance Howard (director Ron’s father) plays Woody’s brother, and the way he performs in this sequence, staring at the off-screen TV, it’s as if he’d been sitting in that living room his entire life, holding the same beer, waiting for someone to show up with a camera and mutter: “Action.”
Nebraska (R) ★★★☆☆