These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why. Please join the commentary at the end.
By Dominique Paul Noth
Bruce Dern and Will Forte on the road in “Nebraska.”
There is no flash, bang and crash of cymbals in “Nebraska.” It possesses a comedic yet elegiac elegance that dooms it at awards time. But at least the movie community had the courage to recognize its humanistic honesty.
The central character, Woody Grant, is unlikeable and even pitiful – a taciturn, cantankerous, retired mechanic muddled by years of boozing and bare subsistence in Montana. He’s like American Gothic drawn by Charles Addams. In his partial senility and unfailing stubbornness, he becomes convinced that a magazine sales come-on actually will bring him a million dollars if he can get to Lincoln, Nebraska. Despite his family’s recognition that he has been duped, he wanders off determined to find his own way. Only his least successful son (as society measures success) decides to humor the old man and accompany him on his fool’s errand.
“Nebraska” is a throwback to an observational time of moviemaking. A road movie, no less. In black and white, no less. With guitar riffs floating us past signage, monotonous highways, side-roads, decrepit houses and crumbling stretches of rural America – without car chases or false punctuation.
How, you may well ask, can so unpretentious a story about so unsteady a character keep us growingly interested? But build it does. Chuckle we do. There is a sneaky comic vision of the greed, boredom and buffoonery of the relations and old friends Woody encounters, of how the neglected way-stations of America carry generations of meaning. The son uncovers unexpected snippets from Woody’s past that quietly unravel this uncommunicative beer guzzling grizzled wreck who lacks any interest in defending himself or any ounce of poetry to reveal his soul.
Director Alexander Payne has that poetry. When not being too clever, so does screenwriter Bob Nelson, who finds humor in the articulate as well as the vulgar. It is through such skills, including remarkable cinematographer Phedon Papanichael, that Woody emerges. But the soul of Woody, without any showiness, is occupied by Bruce Dern, and that is everything.
Bruce Dern was an uncredited extra in Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” (1960), the sailor attacking a child in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” (1964). The wild-eyed cowboy who tries to hang Clint Eastwood (1968) and actually kills John Wayne (1972). The suicidal combat victim of “Coming Home” (1978). It took eons for Dern to be elevated from psychotic and weirdo to offbeat leading man and then sought-after character actor. But those who watched him maneuver over six decades through good roles and bad ones understood what Hollywood often didn’t -- the artistry under the antic ability that got him cast.
No antics here. Finally a devotion to the truth of simply occupying a character that had long been Dern’s relentless pursuit as an actor. He never tries to push with Woody. He just is, and that is precisely what the role needs – a natural hypnotic presence. Perhaps honor at his achievement will break the awards lockout for “Nebraska,” but Dern fans shouldn’t hold their breath.
There is one brief moment, not Dern’s doing, where the film breaks its remarkable wall of observational tension to satisfy the audience’s desire to strike out at those who take advantage of Woody. But the fact that we so want to strike out and defend a character we started out barely tolerating simply emphasizes how Dern got Woody inside our heads without artifice.
June Squibb as Woody’s abrasive overbearing wife reveals more depth than the harridan we take her for. But even better, since we see things through his quiet empathetic manner, is Will Forte as the son. Yes, the Will Forte of SNL who here finds the rapport with Woody and never lets us see him seeing the humor of it all.
No, “Nebraska” won’t win awards. It is too quietly paced and does require attentive patient viewing. But it steadily catches you up, reels you in and reminds you forcibly of the insights possible through humanistic cinema.
The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.