Life in shades of gray

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Director Alexander Payne marries an urbane sensibility with a rare awareness that there are entire stretches of the United States that are neither big cities nor the Wild West, and that life takes place there. His latest, Nebraska, in addition to being a strong showcase for Bruce Dern, is an authentic piece of Americana. There’s no lying or condescending from this director. Nebraska feels pure.
It’s also a fascinating entity, rather like a patient with no apparent vital signs who is yet alive and active. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson keep the movie afloat, despite a story that, in its broad outlines, sounds like Waiting for Godot on Quaaludes: Woody (Dern), an old man in the middle stages of dementia, becomes convinced that he has won a million dollars from something like Publishers Clearing House, and he sets out on foot from his home in Montana to collect the money from the home office in Lincoln, Neb.

Someday, when they write dissertations about Alexander Payne, Nebraska will be considered a companion piece to Payne’s earlier About Schmidt (2002). Both involve disappointed old men. Both involve road trips through the middle of the country. Both depict old age as a time of spiritual confusion bordering on panic, and both present a long-term marriage as exhausted and of little comfort. If anything About Schmidt is the more pessimistic, as in downright despairing, while Nebraska suggests that hope itself might provide solace.

Dern brings lots of history to this role. In his youth and middle age, he was renowned for playing men either angry, crazy or both. Woody is a departure only in that it places this character actor at the center of the film. Otherwise, Woody is not unlike the earlier Dern reimagined as an aging hero—still angry, but no longer dangerous; resentful of his own weakness, and hovering between reality and delusion.

Because Woody can no longer drive, and because this idee fixe is beyond the reach of reason, his younger son, David (Will Forte), decides to drive him to Nebraska. Forte is a revelation as a dramatic actor, full of feeling, with expressive eyes and an aura that radiates niceness. You look at him, and you look at Dern, and you think how awful it must have been for a sensitive boy to grow up with a taciturn, hard-drinking father. But now the son is grown up, and the father is diminished, so it’s finally an even fight.

Conveniently for the story, we discover that Woody and his wife (June Squibb) spent most of their early married life in Nebraska, and so most of the film is taken up with scenes of Woody interacting with people from his past, including his formidable former business partner (Stacy Keach).

Nebraska is wide enough to harmonize a range of experience, from the comedy that comes of everyone’s believing that Woody has become a millionaire to the poignancy of his visiting the site of his unhappy childhood. June Squibb, as Woody’s wife, is an important force in the film—sometimes comically unpleasant but someone whose drive and wit ultimately suggest the very attractive young woman that Woody married years before.

Like About Schmidt, Nebraska takes a dark view of old age, but at least offers the possibility that resiliency and self-delusion can make the last years tolerable. What is it that Woody wants with a million dollars? What is it in this wreck of a man that makes him want to believe that he’s hit a jackpot? It’s not about money or the things money can buy. It’s about wanting to be envied, to be admired and looked at and regarded as someone special. That desire, which Dern conveys with beautiful subtlety, never goes away until they nail down the coffin lid.

Nebraska is shot in black and white, not the glossy black and white of Frances Ha, but a workmanlike black and white that doesn’t try to make anything pretty. There are lots of long shots that emphasize the wideness of streets, the grandness of space and the contrasting smallness of the lives—of all individual lives in the big scheme. In the face of all that, self-belief would hardly seem possible, and yet people keep managing it.

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