Payne’s “Nebraska” Masterpiece ~ Reviewers Rave

November 15, 2013

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FILM REVIEW

‘Nebraska’: State of Grace

A richly textured road movie with a stunning performance by Bruce Dern

By

JOE MORGENSTERN
Nov. 14, 2013 1:36 p.m. ET

Watch a clip from the film “Nebraska.” A booze-addled father (Bruce Dern) makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son (Will Forte) in order to claim a sweepstakes prize. Also starring Bob Odenkirk. (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

What makes a movie big or small? By one set of measurements Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” which was written by Bob Nelson, is on the small side—modest budget, black-and-white photography, a road movie played out across flat country at a leisurely pace, and nary a trace of special effects. Measured differently, though, this is a richly textured film about a half-cracked father and a nearly estranged son, a universal tale in which the father, dodging dementia—and his shrewish wife—with sporadic success, clings fiercely, heroically and often hilariously to his own reality. By the metrics of the heart, “Nebraska” is as big as it is beautiful.

Everything turns on the father, Woody Grant, and Bruce Dern’s portrait of the boozy old coot is a wonder, as well as the capstone, thus far, of that singular actor’s career. With a white nimbus of unkempt hair and a wild look in his gimlet eyes, Woody walks stiffly, like a puppet with splintering legs attached to strings of unequal length, but he walks often and far. Instead of a wanderlust, he has a wander-off-lust that keeps his wife, Kate (June Squibb), in a state of agitation, and keeps their 40-something son, David, busy looking for him. (David is played, with soulful delicacy, by Will Forte.)

Woody’s reality is woefully skewed but clearly focused, even if the objects of his focus are illusory. That’s particularly true of the million-dollar sweepstakes prize he’s convinced he has won on the basis of a direct-mail letter. It’s a scam, of course, but a perfect pretext for a movie plot. When Woody insists on traveling from his home in Montana to the sweepstakes office in Nebraska to collect his windfall, his sad, sweet-spirited son makes an impulsive decision to indulge his father’s fantasy, and the two men hit the road.

The filmmaker is a Nebraska native, so it’s no surprise that his film has a vivid sense of place. (Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography goes beyond vivid into radiant in its depiction of tranquil cloudscapes, meandering country roads and moldering rural backwaters. Some of his images evoke the American Gothic of Grant Wood, or, on city streets along the way, those of Garry Winogrand, but the overall aesthetic is his own, and deeply pleasing.) What’s extraordinary is what happens at the intersection of Mr. Payne’s impeccable direction and Mr. Nelson’s brilliant script. The odyssey combines, quite effortlessly, prickly combat between father and son; picaresque comedy—a blissfully funny sequence involves a purloined compressor—and a stirring exploration of Woody’s past, for which he has harbored little fondness. “You must have been in love, at least at first,” David says to his father, searching for the slightest trace of warmth in his parents’ marriage. “It never came up,” Woody replies.

Related Video

WSJ Film Critic Joe Morgenstern reviews ‘Nebraska,’ a black-and-white road movie that unfolds in classic tradition. Photo: Paramount Pictures.

The past, “Nebraska” wants us to know, is always with us, whether figuratively, in its hero’s case—he turns out to be basically the same scattered, naïve sucker he was as a kid—or literally, as evidenced by one of those backwaters, a Nebraska town called Hawthorne where time moves in such small, halting steps that the present hasn’t arrived. Woody grew up there, and he can’t fathom that people he knew are dead and gone, but part of his family remains, including a couple of grotesque nephews with nothing to do all day.

In the hands of a lesser director, working from another script, everyone in town might have been grotesque; this film is notable for its grace and generosity. The old folks, being old, talk slowly, and a little too loudly, but they aren’t broadened into caricature. The one exception is Kate, the wife and mother, who never has a good word to say about anyone. Ms. Squibb’s performance is so broad that it’s hard to believe such a scold could have produced a son as open and gentle as David: Kate’s first words, hurled witheringly at Woody, are “You dumb cluck!” Yet she sells her character’s crackling dialogue with a verve that’s bound to be popular.

As a road movie in a classic tradition, “Nebraska,” with an exquisite score by Mark Orton, has a stated destination and an unstated goal. Getting to that sweepstakes office is a trip and a half, punctuated by encounters with such pungent characters as Stacy Keach’s Ed Pegram, a smiling brute who’s alive to the possibilities of Woody’s putative fortune, and Angela McEwan’s Peg Nagy, an other-worldly pixie who runs Hawthorne’s little newspaper and dispatches a boy on a bicycle to photograph Woody for the article she intends to write about him. But getting to the goal of reconciliation is what carries father and son along, and leads to a vehicular climax that’s entirely in keeping with what has gone before—ineffably tender, entirely unexpected and quietly thrilling.

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