Wednesday, November 27, 2013
"Nebraska" is a movie of pauses and unspoken words. If you were to spell out everything that happens in the film and everything that's said, it wouldn't amount to much. A lot of people might find it rather slow, but they aren't the sort who go to a black-and-white dark comedy/drama from the guy who directed "Sideways" and "The Descendants," anyway.
Although "Nebraska" is a movie of slowness and deliberateness, director Alexander Payne doesn't revel in being so. His takes are long, but don't tarry a second longer than needed. The people speak in few words, the main character in so few he's practically mute. Yet any more dialogue would seem too much.
The plot is ... a non-story. A crotchety old man with some degree of undiagnosed dementia wants to travel from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his $1 million prize he received a letter about in the mail.
The "prize" is simply one of those scams where you sign up for some magazine subscriptions and you're entered into a contest. Of course, the letter has dollar signs and says "You are a winner!", so old folks like Woodrow Grant (Bruce Dern) are fooled into handing over their money.
Woody's insistence borders on obsession, to the point he starts walking cross-country to get his money. The police dutifully pick him up and return him safely home every time, but his family's so fed up that younger son Dave (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln just to put the matter to rest.
Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson slowly peel back the layers of Woody, a guy who at first seems like a walking joke but gradually is revealed as nothing less than an American icon. Woody came from a small farm, went to war and didn't talk about what he did there, got himself a wife and a business, drank too much and lived a life of quotidian repetition.
Now he's old, his mind is going, his wife and sons are exasperated by his erratic behavior, and basically everyone is just waiting for him to die, including Woody himself.
Dern is just terrific as Woody, a total transformation that we don't even question. With his nimbus of scattered white hair, unshaven face and neck, he looks half a step up from homeless. He walks in a hunched, stiff-legged shamble, as if he were a mummified duck.
While Woody wears the mien of a stubborn loner, Dern subtly reveals the yearning inside him. Woody doesn't really have any use for the money, only able to specify "a truck and a compressor" when asked what he'll buy. What he really wants is to be a somebody, instead of the nobody he's become.
Things really ratchet up when Woody and Dave stop in his tiny hometown of Hawthorne, where the social calendar seems to consist of drinking beer and watching TV, then going to the local bar to do the same in the company of others. Woody casually mentions the prize when asked why he's back, and the locals accept the sham as willingly as did he, turning the town joke into the big celebrity.
Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is the local big man and bully, a former business partner of Woody's, who figures he's owed a slice of the pie because ... well, just because. Worse yet, some of Woody's relatives get the same idea in their noggins.
June Squibb shines as Woody's put-upon wife, who obviously decided long ago to give out as much grief as she's gotten out of life. It's a brassy, showy part, and Squibb milks it for every ounce while still remaining believable as a person. I also enjoyed Bob Odenkirk as their older, more settled offspring.
The best scenes are between Forte and Dern, as the dutiful son tries to puzzle out the inscrutability of his father before he falls into the same trap of passivity and obstinacy himself. Recently split up from his girlfriend, Dave quizzes Woody about getting married and having kids. "You must have been in love at first?" "Never came up," is the laconic reply.
"Nebraska" is not a film for everyone, its rhythms too languorous for people who just want to munch their popcorn and "have a good time." But for those who can appreciate the unhurried unraveling of a mystery, the riddle of the extraordinary ordinary man, it's a delicious dark treat.