- Movie Rating -

Nebraska (2013)

| December 12, 2013 | 0 Comments

It is not all that surprising that it has taken 50 years for Bruce Dern to find a role that fits him like a glove.  He is an actor that Hollywood never really knew what to do with, an intense actor whose characters were always burning with a level of frustration that kept you at arm’s length.  He was too unpredictable and strange to be a leading man, so he took supporting roles in films like “Coming Home” and “The Great Gatsby.”  Yet, he always seemed to stand outside those films.  There was a creepy quality about him that didn’t fit any form outside of imploding villains.  He admitted recently in an interview with hitflix.com that after killing John Wayne in 1972’s “The Cowboys” and then attempting to blow up the Super Bowl in 1977’s “Black Sunday” that he really had nowhere to go.

Now, at 77, Dern has finally found a role that fits him so well that it got him the Palm D’Or last spring at the Cannes Film Festival.  In Alexander Payne’s funny and emotionally tender black and white mid-western comedy “Nebraska”, he plays Woody Grant, a grouchy old coot with a wisp of unkempt white hair who becomes hell-bent on getting from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollars after receiving one of those “You May Have Already Won” scam letters designed to sell magazines.  Despite all common sense – and a reasoning explanation from his son David (played by Will Forte in a wonderfully understated performance) – he heads out a fruitless, 850 mile trek to claim his prize money.  David, knowing that it is a trip to nowhere, figures that it might be great to spend a couple of days with dear old dad, and decides to drive him.

Woody’s motivation is more or less based on a blind trust.  At 77, he’s part of the heartland take-people-at-their-word generation.  He believes what people tell him, and when someone says he has won a million dollars, he thinks it might be rude not to check it out.  At home, he has no earthly reason to hang around the house.  His wife is Kate (June Squibb) is a loud-mouthed battle-axe who never stops talking, and worse, decides to join them.  A great deal of her behavior explains a great deal of Woody’s.  With that, a lot of their behavior explains a lot of David’s.  It’s all generational.

Many of the details of the trip cannot be revealed without giving too much away, except to say that when people hear that a man is about to get a million dollars, old friend and family come out of the wood-work with loving smiles and warm handshakes, which is particularly galling to a man who never  had any use for any of these people, and vice versa.  Thus, “Nebraska” becomes a very funny movie about the connective power of people and the awe-inspiring glow of one individual who seems to have more than the lion’s share.

The whole cast is wonderful, but Payne has found a gem in Bruce Dern, who is a wonderful case of the right actor in the right role, and if he had to wait until he was 77 to play it, it was worth the wait.  Woody’s mind seems to have been disillusioned by his trustworthy upbringing mixed with a world that refuses to play fair.  He wants to be trustworthy, but he has reached the age at which he has outlived all the tricks and all the games people play and has worn down to a man for whom good fortune is a mere a concept.  Dern has moments in the film in which his face speaks volumes even when he doesn’t say a word.  Note, for example, the scene in which the three travelers visit an old cemetery.  June tells David the identity of each headstone.  Behind them stands Woody whose face is haunted by a memory of a younger brother that died in infancy.  Visiting his old boyhood home, there something sad in Woody’s eyes when he remembers being punished for walking into his parent’s bedroom.  What is special here is that Dern tells us everything we need to know with just a few words, or in most cases, no words at all.  It’s that good of a performance.

The movie was directed by Alexander Payne who specializes in telling laid back stories about people with problems who come to understand the future only by what has come before.  He previously made “Sideways”, “About Schmidt”, “The Descendents” and the criminally underrated “Election”, which featured Reese Witherspoon’s best performance.  Here he puts together a film in which the characters are built on words.  Listen very carefully to the dialogue and notice how different conversations deepen our knowledge of the characters beyond just their immediate circumstances.  One conversation gives us a little information about Woody and Kate, and then another conversation later by a different person gives us more information.  By the end, we feel that we know their background through the dialogue.  This is a smartly written film that pays off beautifully in a scene that is based on blind deception that the movie has been building all along.  This movie is as much a pleasure to listen to as it is to watch.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.