In his latest leisurely road picture, Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) spins a shaggy yarn. The journey undertaken by Woody, a half-senile old drunk, and his adult son David, is less about their questionable destination and more of an inwardly focused tour of their past. However this is not one of those quirky indie pictures about a crotchety but ultimately lovable elderly guy bonding with his estranged child. The film finds fascinating eccentricities in normal, everyday family dysfunction and the quiet desperation of rusted out, post-industrial small towns. The minimal plot provides just enough momentum to keep us intrigued as we watch what is essentially a odyssey of disappointments for Woody and the people around him. Yet this is not a depressing film--in fact it’s often quite funny. Payne has always been more concerned with capturing nuanced performances from his actors than telling dramatic stories or creating dynamic visuals. It’s rare for this approach to yield an entirely satisfying picture, but Nebraska is an exception. The movie lingers on individual moments far longer than most contemporary films dare, enabling us to acutely observe what is left unsaid by the characters.
Bruce Dern’s status as a highly respected character actor who never really became a movie star makes him especially suited to the role of Woody, a stubborn and cantankerous old fart who seems like he should have passed away years ago but has kept himself alive through the sheer force of his irritability. Dern carries a lot of cinematic history on his 77 year-old frame; he has worked with nearly every great auteur director of the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, in films ranging from The Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version of The Great Gatsby, to Alfred Hitchcock's final film Family Plot, to Hal Ashby's post-Vietnam War drama Coming Home, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Nebraska is an ideal career topper for the greying, under-appreciated star of nearly forgotten 70s gems like The King of Marvin Gardens, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and Silent Running.
For the role of Woody’s son, Payne’s choice of comic actor Will Forte is inspired. Forte, a second-string Saturday Night Live cast member with explosive energy, downplays the part with a reserved, “aw-shucks” charm that makes the sad-sack David instantly sympathetic. An even more brilliant casting choice is June Squibb as Woody’s wife. Squibb, the diminutive and rotund actress who played the rather thankless role of Jack Nicholson's wife in About Schmidt, is every bit Dern’s equal when it comes to commanding the screen, using sharp dialogue and relentless energy as a counterpoint to his subtle, near-silent power. They are a terrific on-screen couple and when joined by the always welcome Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s older son, the four actors make an utterly credible Midwesten family.
Bob Nelson’s screenplay comes by both its humor and its sentiment honestly, never resorting to contrived jokes or false emotional breakthroughs. But it is the performances that make the film memorable. While screen veterans like Stacy Keach and Rance Howard have key supporting roles, much of the cast are non-actors Payne cast locally. The film finds comedy and pathos in the behavior of its small town residents who all come across as real people, not quirky caricatures. The black and white cinematography accentuates the starkness of the landscapes--not just the flat, expansive, Midwestern topography but also the facial landscapes of the elderly characters. This is very much a film about growing old and the effects of age on the mind and body. Nebraska delicately makes the point that while time can be physically punishing, it can also heal emotional wounds. This subtext, like many other potentially saccharine themes in the film, is arrived at honorably. The simplicity of the redemption story, and the credible nature of its acrimonious characters, makes Nebraska, like Sideways, a film many will want to revisit often.