nebraskaCentral Plains Have A Beauty All Their Own
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Stacy Keach, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll
Director: Alexander Payne
Scriptwriter: Bob Nelson
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Composer: Bob Orton
Paramount Vantage
Rating: R for language
Running Length: 110 minutes
This reviewer had the privilege of interviewing director Alexander Payne when he was coming through the Midwest and stopped in my town. A soft-spoken man, polite and friendly. In “Nebraska,” a tone poem in black and white to his state, Payne directs, not from his own material, but from a script by Bob Nelson. The actors, and there are many in the film, each with their own ambience, are like the people I saw while in Nebraska the fall of 2013. Small town America, with a local tavern/cafe and Catholic and Lutheran cemeteries. Interstates missed them by miles and the towns have settled into a life of getting by.
The theme of “Nebraska,” is that of an elderly man, Woody (Bruce Dern), who is sliding into senility and believes that a letter he received about winning a million dollars in a lottery is the genuine article. The audience knows otherwise. He won't be swayed from this and it is his Holy Grail as he goes through running away from home, illness, and separation from family to get this money. Home is Billings, Montana. Since Woody shows few people his letter, they believe he has won something. Family come to borrow money (“You owe me, remember?”) and an old business partner, Ed (Stacy Keach) wants loaned money back and the amount goes higher each time they meet. Woody’s patient son, David (played by a sad-eyed Will Forte) feels separated from his father, but thinks maybe they can get together if he drives Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the winnings. Woody doesn't have a license. Woody’s wife, Kate (played by a continually crabby and sarcastic June Squibb) makes everyone’s life miserable, and David’s other brother, Ross (a small town newscaster), doesn't want to take sides. The road trip begins and when Woody has an accident and possible concussion, they take a few days off to visit relatives in Nebraska and when the family gathers you see the in-laws and the out-laws. The family begins to meld when brother Ross comes. The stand-offish one is letting loose. Brothers David and Ross become brothers again.
Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll steal their scenes as brothers about three beats behind each conversation. Their version of everything is correct and everyone else is wrong. When they smell money, the game is on and there is a mugging like a Laurel and Hardy movie. The humor in “Nebraska” comes in small ways and the audience must be aware of nuances from the actors, especially in a scene of men watching television.
What we see in “Nebraska” is a family that is coming apart when the patriarch is getting old and can't care for himself. The mother doesn't seem to care for him at all. One son is all business and presentation while the other has difficulty making decisions (stay with a girlfriend or not) and when he finally makes any decision, even the audience is surprised. Will Forte’s face in that first momentous decision is a study of determination. Bruce Dern looks perpetually confused, with scruffy white hair, old clothing and a shuffling gait. The kind of person you would see and say “One foot in the grave already.” When family discussions provide some secrets, people’s actions are understood.
The casting of Bruce Dern is very good. Oscar nominations will come calling for this film, including Will Forte, director Alexander Payne, scriptwriter Bob Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and composer Bob Orton. The scenery of the Midwest becomes part of this family as though they have always been there in each straight line of the road. Music eases into the scenes and becomes one with everyone present. This is what America is about. People, places, and trying to blend the past with what is current, as in an auto body shop, once owned by someone Woody knew. Now, the mechanics speak Spanish and they have no idea who Woody is talking about. Hand-in-hand with the past and then hand-in-hand with the future, life goes on.
Copyright 2013 Marie Asner
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