Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Director : Alexander Payne
IE Rating: ****
To make a film whose lead actor is whiskery and doddery and just plain old so engrossing is an art. Alexander Payne brings all his craft to bear upon ‘Nebraska’, but at no point does he make us aware of it. Which is why the film works so well, in its pristine black and white frames, as it moves and judders and halts and moves again, keeping beautifully in pace with its protagonists’ inner lives.
‘Nebraska’ is one of the 9 films nominated for the Best Film for the upcoming Oscars and Bruce Dern, who plays the stubborn old man with a soft streak, is up for Best Actor. It is unlikely that it will get any of the biggies it is nominated for, but to me to the film’s real victory is in the way it does the most difficult thing in the world : to reveal such life-like characters and their flaws with such unflinching clarity and deep sympathy without turning it into a pity party.
Woody (Dern) is convinced that he has won a lottery, and nothing his younger son David ( Forte) nor his truculent wife Kate (Squibb, also nominated for a Best Supporting Actress) can say will dissuade him. He will walk, if necessary, all the way across the vast American Midwest, to reach Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his prize. The fact that David gives him a ride makes it a proper road movie : real Americans do not walk, unless they live in NYC. That brings Payne, up for a Best Director, right in his zone. And you can see how he has grown, from his terrific ‘Sideways’ to this much more rounded, moving road trip, in which he places the old and the young alongside, and gets maximum traction out of it.
Part of the beauty of this film is the slow-build up to nothing and everything. Woody, who likes his liquor, is ageing visibly in front of our eyes, and seems at one point about to lose his faculties. As the car swallows up the miles, we see him coming closer to discover the truth about himself, and his relationships. Kate may come off as permanently derisive, but she is the one for him. And David, who also doesn’t quite know where he is ( an estranged wife shows up briefly and shuts the door on him, but is there scope there still? ), seems to have come to a learning when he says this about his father: “He just believes stuff people tell him.”
There’s comedy here, in the way Woody’s forgotten family members and friends start cosying up to him in the hope of getting a share of the million dollars. But it never becomes harsh or unforgiving : in Payne’s, and Woody’s worlds, the people are who they are, and they do what they do. There’s a full life as it is being lived, warts, liver-spots, flyaway uncombed untidy hair, and all. And above all, there’s the sense of coming full circle, of finding a purpose.