Directed by Alexander Payne
Paramount, 115 minutes, R (for language, sexual banter, and because the ratings system is insane)
* * * * *
|Woody hanging on.|
12 Years a Slave is the year’s most important movie, but Nebraska is its best. Similarly, Bruce Dern would be a shoo-in to win the Best Actor Oscar in any year he didn’t face competition from colleagues portraying Solomon Northrup or Nelson Mandela, but his is also the finest single performance of the year.
By now you’ve probably heard the narrative arc, one that bears some resemblance to The Straight Story (1999). A grizzled and partially senile curmudgeon named Woody Grant (Dern) receives one of those magazine come-ons announcing he has won a million dollars (small print: if your number matches) and decides to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. His sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) try to drill sense into the old codger’s head, but he’s having none of it. It says right on the paper that he’s won a million bucks and, by God, he means to claim it and he isn’t about to trust the U.S. mail to deliver his check. Woody is more than confused; as his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) confirms, Woody in his dotage is as stubborn as he’s always been—the kind of guy who decides the sky isn’t blue and, damn it, it’s not. He’s also a miserable SOB who was a problem drinker, a carouser, and a terrible father who was emotionally and physically absent. In short, Woody’s the sort of bastard who, if he wasn’t your father, you’d let him die in a ditch. For all of that, David decides to humor the old fart and drive him toward Lincoln in the (vain) hope has can talk some sense into his fool head.
The film is, in essence, a road trip and like others of that genre involves a serious of mishaps and misadventures. It also features a stopover in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s hometown, and one filled with relatives, old flames, a shady former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and conflicting versions of who stole from whom. In Hawthorne, we discover what the film is really about: the death of the American Dream. Nebraska is filmed in black and white, which displays the rural nightmare of Hawthorne much better than color ever could. The surrounding prairie is a place of harsh and stark beauty, but there’s nothing to redeem Hawthorne, a dying town populated by elderly people, the skeletal remains of former shops and enterprises, and a couple of seedy taverns. Not since Peter Bogdanovich offered us Anarene, Texas, in The Last Picture Show (1971) have we seen a town this unrelentingly bleak.
Payne takes us a step further. No one will believe David when he tells them Woody isn’t rich; they simply assume the family doesn’t want to share their windfall. That’s because it’s not just the town that’s dying, but all the people in it. A poignant visit to the local cemetery to visit Grants in the ground drives this home. Squibb has a delicious scene in which she reveals her own raunchy past and spills the beans on the (less than) angels reposing beneath monuments. But she also notices residents of whose passing she was unaware. What ‘life’ there is in town is found in the taverns, but one gets the feeling that the barstools are just rotating tombstones. There sure isn’t much of a pulse among the assembled Grant clan gathered at the home of Uncle Ray (Rance Howard) and Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) to congratulate Woody (and to plot how they can get a slice of his million-dollar pie). There is a scene of a cramped roomful of Grant men watching a football game—the histrionics of the announcer a sardonic contrast to the tightlipped Grants. The tableau is so heartbreaking that we long to flee and weep. Would it really matter if any of them struck it rich? What would Woody’s brain-dead cousins Bart and Cole do with that much money? It’s doubtful they can count past ten.
Have I given too much plot? Not really. This film is more about what doesn’t happen than what does. And one must believe that Payne wants to take down the nonsense that America is a land of boundless wealth and opportunity. Dern’s Woody is the human equivalent of Hawthorne—a physical wreck unaware of his outward shabbiness, holding on to a thin stitch holding his forehead together and an even thinner one fastening him to sanity and life itself. Dern is, simply, magnificent in the role. Likewise, Squibb’s performance is revelatory. She strikes a delicate balance between caring and sarcasm, humor and tenacity. It would be a travesty if she doesn’t win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Make no mistake; Nebraska is not an uplifting film (and the theater trailers do it a disservice by making it appear to be an edgy comedy). It’s hard to watch, but you won’t view a better American film in 2013.