Mark Reviews Movies

Nebraska

NEBRASKA

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time:  1:55

Release Date: 11/15/13 (limited); 11/22/13 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2013

The desolation of the landscape alone—the seemingly unending highways, an abandoned main street in a small town, and the wide reaches of farmland that barely seem used—is overwhelming. It's gray—so gray that we start to wonder if there even is any color to these locations or if it's just painted on the postcards. Then we begin to wonder why anyone would want to send or receive a postcard from here. Of course, that's not meant to be a slight against the wide-open (more like really, really wide-open) plains and surely down-to-earth people of Nebraska but a reflection on the mood of director Alexander Payne's Nebraska, which must give these characters a backdrop that matches how lonely, isolated, and lost they are.

We could understand their sadness without the barren background (starkly captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael), but with it, their state of being takes on a level of existential despair that is inescapable. The fields, the forests, and the highways, after all, just go on and on without any perceptible end.

While the film might sound depressing, it is actually a very funny comedy that happens to deal with such cold, hard realities as familial difficulties, the physical and mental deterioration of aging, and the morass of realizing that one hasn't lived the life one expected or desired—maybe even realizing one was never certain of what kind of life that might have been in the first place. Bob Nelson's screenplay relies on one of the basic truths of comedy: that it can—and, typically, will—come from desperation. The characters here might not seem desperate from the external appearance and behavior, but there are different levels of that oh-so human emotion. Theirs is a quiet kind of desperation, brought on by years and decades of repressing their issues—either because they can or will not talk about them because of expectations from others.

Take Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, playing a man of few words with a great deal of pathos), who is the first character we meet. He's walking—almost stumbling, really—along a busy street until the Sheriff comes to bring him back home before he can make his way from the exit ramp to a small town in Montana and on to the interstate. Woody's younger son David (Will Forte, in an understated performance that serves as the film's sympathetic core) arrives at his parents' house to hear from his mother Kate (June Squibb, stealing scenes left and right with her brash commentary) how miserable it is to live with Woody, who maybe has a year or two tops, she suspects, before he succumbs to some form of dementia.

He's distant and rarely responds to a question on the first asking, but that is either because he is simply losing his hearing or chooses not to listen to anyone. Woody walks the streets on a mission to get to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the office of a marketing company that has sent him a flyer saying he has won a million dollars is located. David, Kate, and Woody's elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) try to convince him it's simply a scam to sell magazines, but Woody won't hear any of it. He's convinced the flyer guarantees he'll become a millionaire if he brings it to Lincoln, and eventually, just to indulge his father's wish, David, leaving behind a dead-end job and a girlfriend about whom he isn't certain, agrees to drive him there.

It starts off as a road trip with father and son facing the awkward silences and minor conflicts that arise whenever they do speak. Neither man really understands the other, which is made perfectly clear on a detour trip to see Mount Rushmore. David tries to take in the sight, but Woody complains that it doesn't look finished. Woody is a master of the art of the succinct and definitive closure of any subject. Trying to have a heart-to-heart talk about love his father, David asks Woody how he knew he wanted to marry Kate, and Woody, quite honestly, responds, "She wanted to, and I thought, what the hell?" When it comes to the decision of having children, he's even blunter: "I liked screwing, and your mother's Catholic."

The depiction of the communication divide between the two is painfully honest. There's a great bit in which the two men, searching for Woody's false teeth near some railroad tracks the morning after he lost them in a drunken stupor, each make a joke that the teeth aren't his, and their separate reactions sum up the characters with precision. Woody believes his son (gullibility being his tragic flaw), and David becomes instantly frustrated with his father, believing his old man is losing his mind, and even more annoyed when Woody says he's joking.

The heart of the film, though, comes when David and Woody stop for the weekend in Woody's hometown to stay with his brother and sister-in-law (Nelson's depictions of Midwestern simple living—men gathered around a TV to watch but not really pay attention to a football game—and bravado—David's cousins hyperbolizing how fast they drive—are pinpoint in their accuracy). Despite David's insistence that he keeps the news of his million-dollar prize to himself (trying to protect his old man from ridicule), Woody starts talking about it rather quickly. The reactions of his family members and old friends start David, in the process of trying to downplay Woody's announcement to the folks who have heard it and to quash the opportunistic greed of family and friends alike, on a path to uncovering some unknown things about his father. It's impossible to completely know a person, but it can be rather shocking to learn how little we truly know about the people we've known our entire lives.

The shifts are subtle but solid, and Payne favors sympathy for his characters over satirization. These people, who start off as caricatures of a generational gap, become achingly real in their pain and potential for something—even if it isn't much—better. Nebraska doesn't have major turnarounds for its characters, and that's right, as well. It's not a matter of people but of perspectives changing. By the end of the film, for example, it's still clear that Woody is a miserable S.O.B. (maybe slightly less of one). That's not the point; the point is that the people around him come to understand that he's their S.O.B.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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