‘Nebraska’: Long road home

November 12, 2013


It’s interesting to see the way filmmakers stake out certain emotional territory as their own over the course of a career.

Steven Spielberg is consumed with the notion of wonder, though he obviously has more arrows than that in his quiver. Martin Scorsese, in his own heaven/hell construct, seems fascinated by the human appetite for self-destruction. Ang Lee tends to focus on longing and regret.

And, over the course of six films, Alexander Payne has created a body of work that focuses on the effects of and rebellion against disappointment. His latest, as witty and moving in its way as “The Descendants,” is “Nebraska,” a surprisingly funny tone poem on roots and separation and, yes, disappointment.

Shot in black and white, which seems fitting, “Nebraska” starts in Billings, Mont., with the image of a lone old man walking down a sidewalk and, by the time the credits end, the side of an interstate (at least until a cop stops him and takes him in for seeming confused).

His name is Woody Grant and, as played by Bruce Dern in the performance of his career, he is a retired mechanic who has received one of those sweepstakes letters meant to lure suckers into subscribing to magazines. “You may already have won $1 million,” it says. To Woody, that’s not a maybe, it’s a promise.

So he decides he’s going to go to Lincoln, Neb., where the offer originated – even if he has to walk (since he no longer has a driver’s license). His frustrated (and unhappy) son David (Will Forte) finally decides to drive him there, though he knows there’s no pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. It’s more about the chance to spend a little time with a father who has never been particularly communicative.

They set off by car, traversing vast expanses of corn fields and prairie, eventually winding up in Hawthorne, the tiny town where Woody grew up and where many of his brothers still live. But what begins as a stopover turns into something else: a family reunion at which everyone mistakenly decides that, in fact, Woody is actually on his way to collect the million dollars.

Payne and writer Bob Nelson understand the small-town rhythms and mindset of these characters. Their worldview is proscribed by the fact that they’ve never left this little patch of Nebraska. They are closed-in, closed-off – just plain closed.

There’s an innate and unspoken jealousy of Woody and his family – the million dollars is merely the emblem of what they feel they’ve missed out on by never leaving the Cornhusker State for the greener pastures of, say, Billings.

Payne’s casting is nothing short of brilliant, starting with Dern. An actor known for his on-screen gusto, he plays Woody as a walking husk of a man, sunken into himself, yet still tough and stubborn enough for this last mission. Dern barely speaks and holds the camera’s focus (and the audience’s) just with his fascinatingly oblique presence.

Payne’s other master stroke was choosing Forte to play David. One of the funnier alumni from “Saturday Night Live,” Forte also possesses one of the saddest pairs of eyes around. At rest, his face reveals a melancholy that speaks of, yes, disappointment, even without the plot particulars with which this character is inscribed. He underplays marvelously, the long-suffering and dutiful son alternately sad for and exasperated with his tough nut of a dad.

June Squibb, so funny as Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s “About Schmidt,” is even better here, as Woody’s impatient and foul-mouthed wife. She steals every scene she’s in and never fails to land a punchline, without seeming to be going for the joke. Bob Odenkirk shows up as David’s brother (who has less tolerance for his dad’s eccentricities and drinking) and Stacy Keach also scores, as a small-town big shot who has a long history with Woody.

Patient is not usually an adjective that is applied to popular movies; in many cases, when it’s used, it’s code for “slow.” But “Nebraska” is patient in the finest way: a carefully crafted tale of connection and separation and what a short distance it is from the beginning to the end of one’s life.

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