How do you define the essence of a man who's no longer here? No longer here in a mental sense, that is. Alexander Payne and veteran character actor Bruce Dern venture to do just that in Nebraska. As a character study about a somewhat tragic figure nearing the end of life's journey, it is rife with fascinating nuance, although not without expense to the story it tells on the surface.
Woody Grant (Dern) is a millionaire. Or so he believes. The letter he received in the mail clearly tells him that he's a “winner”, and failing to recognize the blatant scam, he sets out on foot from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his million dollars in person. Surely, any reasonable kin would agree that the time has come to put Woody in a home, but his son David (Will Forte) has other thoughts. Much to the chagrin of his harried mother (June Squibb) and his older brother (Bob Odenkirk), David plays along with his dad's delusion, agreeing to drive the stubborn codger to Lincoln until Woody accepts the reality of his quest. Stopping over in Woody's hometown – the depressed community of Hawthorne – gives some old family and friends a chance to catch up, but word about his money luck starts to get out of hand.
Dern finally gets the career role he's been working for in Woody Grant. The expositional dialogue penned for his convoy of family, friends, and enemies may be a needlessly clunky backstory vehicle, but it does liberate Dern to focus on acting method and internalize what other actors may have felt the need to make explicit. The brilliance of his performance is not so much in his commitment to the behaviours of a senile old fool, but in his most underplayed reactions to hearing others describe him and his past. We get the sense of a man with an entire lifetime of history he wishes he could express, but which his deteriorating mind won't allow him to.
But however spellbinding Dern may be to watch, Nebraska suffers when he's not in it. Bob Nelson's script – though insightful when it wants to be – indulges in a few too many predictable cliches from a narrative standpoint, and vacillates between really nailing middle America and simply exploiting obvious stereotypes more than Woody vacillates between doddering dementia and self-aware lucidity. Also, the affectations of Payne's directorial rhythm feel a bit put on when going for laughs. It's not that the film isn't funny, but it's just not “haha” funny, leaving many awkward beats stranded throughout the film that dulls its potency.
Perhaps the reason its comedic elements only work in fits and starts is because even the observational humour and relationship healing is informed by a deep underlying sadness, and Payne is careful to craft the film as such. Phedon Papamichael's stark black-and-white photography nicely captures a heartland fallen on bad times, while Mark Orton's elegiac bluegrass dirges make for perfect scene transitions on the soundtrack. For all its dry wit, Nebraska is ultimately a eulogy for a generation at the end of its long and winding road, with nowhere to shuffle off into but a barren, uncertain future.
**1/2 out of ****