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Film Review: “Nebraska” Starring Bruce Dern

Photo: Blue Lake Media Fund

Death, or aging, is probably the scariest thing in the world, especially to those in Hollywood. That’s precisely why movies like Nebraska are so rare, and should be treasured when we stumble upon them.

Bruce Dern started his acting career in 1960, flitting from iconic TV show to TV show, as a cowboy, tough guy or criminal, on the likes of Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Fugitive, Bonanza and most recently Big Love. He was the character actor, the Hollywood professional, constantly playing unsavory types, and netted a Best Supporting Actor nominee in Coming Home (1979), and now 34 years later, he’s practically a shoo-in for his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor in one of his only leading roles in a storied and under-appreciated career that has spanned over 53 years.

Nebraska doesn’t start, as you might expect, in the state of the cornhuskers, but in Billings, MT. It may be the biggest city in Montana, but it’s still a mostly slow and decrepit one, through the lens of director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways). That lens is in black and white, an interesting but effective choice. This movie takes place in a near approximation of present day, but all of the characters of Billings, Hawthorne and Lincoln are mostly stuck in the past or mired in the dreary present, living mundane, gray lives, like the camera transmitting their stories to us.

We open on Bruce Dern’s Woody, his stringy, thin white hair pointing out like Doc Brown fallen on a hard future, as he hobbles down a highway. The cops pick him up and bring him to the station, and it’s clear that this isn’t the first time, nor the last, when his son David (Will Forte) comes to take him away.

Woody received a Mega Sweepstakes million dollar prize in the mail, and is obsessed with claiming his price in Lincoln, Nebraska, before it’s too late. Everyone knows it’s a scam, except poor old Woody, or even if he does, he still needs this, and has to get out of Dodge, or Billings, a stand-in for whatever hapless town one might be stuck in. Woody, near the end of the line, is finally trying to escape, the tantalizing prospect of a new truck and an air compressor his white whale. No matter that he can’t drive, or that he’s lived without an air compressor for over 40 years. That’s what he wants.

While Woody’s wife and his other son Ross (the great Bob Odenkirk living off that justified Breaking Bad high) think he should be sent off to an old folk’s home, David, like all of us, merely feels sorry for him, and just sees a poor, sad sack soul looking for meaning in this pitiable existence. After Woody runs away for the umpteenth time (still trying to walk to Nebraska), David packs up his Subaru to take Woody to Lincoln, NE to accept his make believe winnings.

From there, Nebraska is a father and son road trip film, with David needing a change of scenery from Billings as much as his addled and estranged father, seeking to learn about his stoic, man-of-few words, drunk of a dad before he’s completely incoherent. Everyone’s trying on new hats in this film, and they all fit pretty darn well. Payne was born in Omaha and it’s clear he has a keen eye for the plight of lower class Middle America and it’s hard to remember a more compelling and painfully real and honest portrayal of a family and a town going nowhere.

The film is beautiful, especially on the road, with the bleak farm landscapes of Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska providing a fittingly stark backdrop for the picture. Nebraska sputters through a few pit stops, much like David and Woody’s road trip. Woody’s an alcoholic, but from an age where heavy drinking isn’t a problem (there’s not much else to do in Nebraska) and of the opinion that drinking “beer isn’t drinking” – denial and Old Milwaukee a part of their working class DNA. This mostly works, but when David reveals he’s stopped drinking, because it “doesn’t help,” it seems heavy handed and misplaced, Payne searching for ways to connect father and son. Their story truly soars (metaphorically) when they get stuck in Hawthorne, NE following an accident that leaves Woody in the hospital. Hawthorne is where Woody grew up, and becomes the site for one of the weirdest and most uncomfortable family reunions you’ll ever see, and sheds far more light on Woody’s past, and why he needs to get to Lincoln so badly.

There’s light beer, awkward silences, a lot of talking loudly and repeating oneself for the elderly, and stolid dialogue that feels perfectly authentic, even if it sometimes veers into stereotype. Whether it’s Wheel of Fortune or the football game, the glowing orb commands the most attention in the living room, where a few gruff words passes for conversation, even after seeing one’s brother for the first time in decades. Interest is only piqued when idle talk turns to cars or travel time, an all too true and hilarious running joke throughout the film.

Nebraska is a simple film, but a no less powerful and real one, with many of the major players inhabiting new roles. It took Dern over 50 years to find a role this good, and a starring one, Alexander Payne is directing from a script he didn’t write for the first time (the lean drama comes from Bob Nelson), and SNL funny man Will Forte deserves as much praise as any in this serious role. He’s far from MacGruber here, and like Dern and the rest of the cast, delivers an indelible performance.

The movie may lack color, but none of the characters do, especially loud-mouth, vulgar and tough Kate Grant, thanks to a firecracker performance by June Squibb (About Schmidt, Meet Joe Black). At first, she seems like a cliché nagger who rags on her husband and her sons constantly, but the second she joins Woody and David in Hawthorne, she becomes the funniest part of a surprisingly hilarious film, an obnoxious Mama Bear, protecting her family at all costs, while also flashing her knickers at tombstones of men who missed out on their opportunity. Yeah.

Nebraska is sad, depressing, even pathetic and uncomfortable at times, especially at the beginning, but as mentioned, it’s one of the most frankly funny films of the year, despite/because almost every line is delivered straight. That’s why it all works so well. By the end, Payne’s film is uplifting and inspiring, a wake-up call for those in dead-end jobs, or those mindlessly plodding through life like that’s what they’re supposed to do. In this case, Nebraska is the right destination.

four and a half stars

  • Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte
  • Directed by: Alexander Payne
  • Running Time: 115 minutes
  • Genre: Drama, Comedy