' ' Cinema Romantico: Nebraska

Monday, December 02, 2013


When a man reaches a certain age he sets aside plans and dreams, stops thinking about what he's going to do and is forced to evaluate what he has become and what he will leave behind. It's not exactly a Come To Jesus moment because, theoretically, the person in question should already have Come To Jesus. More often, it's the soul-flattening realization that he did not Come To Jesus, that he did not leave an imprint and that he will barely be remembered and mostly forgotten when he is gone, that his so-called legacy will amount to nothing much more than a trail of debts and empty beer bottles.

This is the unfortunate prospect facing broken-down Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) in Alexander Payne's sorta road-trip opus. Thus, upon receiving an assembly line flyer in the mail claiming he has won one million dollars, the legally blind old man with the limp determines to walk all the way from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to track down his sudden inheritance, a legacy by way of Publisher's Clearing House.

Well, of course Woody hasn't actually won anything. It is, as they say, the oldest scam in the book, and this is what his son David (Will Forte) tries to explain when he is dispatched to reel in his father, not that it matters. Woody just sets back out, a second time, a third time, to sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. Eventually, whether moved by his father's resiliency, fed up with his stubbornness or looking for his own avenue out of depressing normalcy, David chooses to enable Woody's desperation by chauffeuring him to Lincoln. Things, as they must, go awry, which is how Woody and David wind up on an extended stopover in Woody's bleary hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska.

As presented, these denizens of Hawthorne may elicit the accusation commonly directed toward Payne that he is viewing them through a prism of harsh irony, but I would disagree. The Midwest is short on irony, high on bluntness, and small town Midwest can be difficult to infiltrate, even if you're a native.

Payne, working from a script by Bob Nelson, chooses to film "Nebraska" in black and white, and while the black and white is fairly pristine, it still seems the proper stylistic decision. If you hail from the American Midwest, as I do, then you know how the landscape, particularly in the colder months, can appear so oppressively grayscale. The cold blots out the blue in the sky, the wind renders the color in the trees mute and the chill in your bones every time you step outside becomes wearying.

Bruce Dern's performance becomes an embodiment of that weariness, his mouth perpetually agape in apparent disorientation, his hair unkempt. The entire relationship with his wife (June Squibb) feels formed on her nagging and shouting at him and him tuning her out. The film hints at his worsening dementia without necessarily diagnosing it, playing coy as to how much he takes in and retains, an example of the film's resistance to easy empathy. If we knew Woody was truly suffering from a particular mental unbalance, it might be easier to forgive his indifference to family and friends and principles. Instead we are forced to square with the fact our protagonist is not necessarily likable and quite likely a bad father.

Certainly this seems to be the opinion of Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the older brother to David, with a top notch job and a wife and kids. David, however, is "Nebraska's" wild card, and it is for this reason you can sense why Payne might have taken such a chance in casting Forte, primarily known as a sketch comic rather than dramatic actor. Forte, with his moppy head of hair and penchant for Mountain Dew, resembles a sad sack attempting to maintain a polite front. Alternately patient and exasperated with his father, Forte conveys an internal struggle not to determine if his father is necessarily deserving of forgiveness, because Dern's fearless performance suggests he might not be, but if he should, in spite of the past, forgive him anyway.

But perhaps forgiveness is beside the point. Isn't there a saying that only what's-His-name, the Man upstairs can tender forgiveness? So perhaps all David can do is accept his father for who he is and make peace with it. And perhaps his father is looking at the idea of his legacy in the wrong light. A legacy is not about possessions and things one acquires nor even a million bucks, it is about who you were and who you left behind. Woody may not have been the most decent man, but his son's selfless actions as "Nebraska" winds up would suggest that somehow, some way he raised and will leave a decent man behind.


Lexi said...

"Forte, with his moppy head of hair and penchant for Mountain Dew, resembles a sad sack attempting to maintain a polite front" Love this. I thought Forte was really great.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful review, Nick! I saw this at TCFF a while back and was pleasantly surprised by this. You are spot on about many things but especially the B&W cinematography, it does look like gray scale here in the Winter and it IS very tiresome to go out even doing the smallest errands. In any case, I thought June Squibb's character is a hoot!

– ruth