Wednesday, December 4, 2013


NEBRASKA          B+             
USA  (115 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Alexander Payne 

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

An Old Man's Winter Night, by Robert Frost from Mountain Interval, 1920

A sad and solemn affair, a minimalist and spared down look at a man near the end of his life, where perhaps what matters most in a man’s life is not the million dollar fantasy that this film suggests, but his pride in being a man.  Especially growing up in small towns where there’s hardly much difference between people’s lives, as they all pretty much look the same, so the way you take stock of your own life is what eventually matters most.  What might surprise some is the complete absence of religion or the presence of a church anywhere to be seen, replaced here by the influence of corner taverns, which is almost entirely an all-male event, much like gathering around the television in the living room to watch football while the women chatter away in the kitchen.  Other than when they’re drinking, most of these men lead silent, uneventful lives, revealing little about themselves, reflecting the emotional reserve that connects them to the hard-scrabble life of growing up on a farm.  Bruce Dern has a rare lead role, his first in over twenty-five years, playing Woody Grant, a Korean War veteran with a history of drinking too much, now grizzled and forgetful, hard-of-hearing and near-senile, where he’s easily mistaken for an Alzheimer’s patient, even within his own family, who are contemplating putting him in a retirement home.  But he still lives at home in Billings, Montana with his acid-tongued wife Kate (June Squibb), who appears to be his alter-ego, as without her pestering him all the time, he’d be even more lethargic.  At issue is a junk mail letter from a Publishing Clearance House-style sweepstakes marketing firm informing him that he’s won a million dollars, while in fine print it specifies only if he has the winning numbers on the sweepstakes ticket.  Despite being told it’s just a scam, Woody is convinced he’s won a million dollars, but needs to trek to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings.  Day in and day out, he’s picked up by local police along the interstate highway where he intends to walk the 850 miles.  Finally fed up with this routine, his younger son David (Will Forte) decides he’ll drive him to Nebraska and he can see for himself what fortune lies in store for him. 

While the film bears some similarity to David Lynch’s THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999), the 73-year old Alvin Straight went on his journey alone, without any help, offering a kind of mystical wisdom to people he encountered along the way, even camping out under the stars at night, where his gentle, easy-going personality carried more weight.  While Kate thinks they’ve both got a screw loose, “You dumb cluck,” David and his Dad set out on the open road, where soon they are in the middle of nowhere, which are easily the most gorgeous shots in the film, shot in ‘Scope and in Black and White by Phedon Papamichael Jr. (the son of John Cassavetes’s art director and production designer), where the flat, wintry emptiness of the desolate landscapes match Woody’s gruff interior mood, feeling lost and isolated from everyone else, continually drifting off, with fewer moments of clarity.  Along the way, they visit Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, but Woody is barely impressed, claiming it looks unfinished, “Why is George Washington the only one with any clothes, and Lincoln has an ear missing.”  Unable to get to Lincoln by the close of business on Friday, they take a detour into Hawthorne in central Nebraska, Woody’s home town, where his wife will come down and they’ll stay with one of his brothers, with more coming, making it a family reunion.  Since you can’t keep a secret in any small town, word gets out that Woody has won a million dollars, making him the biggest thing the town’s seen in ages.  While David tries to downplay the money aspect, claiming there is none, no one will hear of it, claiming Woody is a town celebrity.  People come out of the woodworks to pat him on the back, wish him well, where even the town newspaper sends a photographer over to take his picture (a kid on a bicycle), with an accompanying cover story soon to be released.  David tries to quell the maddening storm by speaking to the newspaper publisher (Angela McEwan), who, it turns out, used to have a high school crush on his Dad, but knew she was never in the running, as “I didn’t let him play the bases.”    

A portrait of working class America, part of the film’s intrigue is the familiarity with the Nebraska landscape, the fourth Payne film to take place in his home state, where he is single-handedly the region’s poet laureate on celluloid, beautifully capturing the shape of cloud formations, lone farmhouses, empty, run-down towns, where part of his visual vernacular is finding the trademark images that are underrepresented in other movies.  Going to considerable length to capture the authenticity of the region, Payne chose many locals to act in his film, many of them living in Plainview, Nebraska, where much of the film was shot, including many retired farmers who live nearby.  In addition to Angela McEwan, whose friendly small town kindness gets noticed (she baked cookies for Payne on the day they initially met), so does Rance Howard as Uncle Ray, Woody’s couch potato older brother, who happens to be the real life father of director Ron Howard.  Certainly that kindness rubs off on the young son, David, who sticks up for his old man throughout the picture, just trying to offer him a bit of dignity in his waning years, where it pains him to see his father made the butt of bad jokes, especially when the vultures come in for the road kill, as everyone wants a piece of the money, especially his old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who gets creepier by the minute.  For Woody, it’s just holding onto a pleasant memory or a sweet dream, where he’s the kind of guy that can’t say no to others, always willing to give them a helping hand, even at his own expense.  Much of this is a reflection of the Midwestern way of life, where the film suggests offering a helpful hand to others is dying in America, a part of the culture that doesn’t exist anymore, like so many of the faded landmarks shot in solitude.  The music by Mark Orton is initially effective, especially some of the wordless landscape montages, but it’s overused and keeps repeating, becoming problematic after awhile.  While there are no great dramatic moments in this film, it makes the most of the small ones, often shot in a stream-of-conscious style, becoming a somber reflection of aging, of holding onto what you’ve got for as long as you can, even refusing to let go of that stubborn pride, as sometimes that’s all you’ve got left.  Winter is the season of life in the film, where for farmers the promise of next year’s crops lies frozen under a blanket of snow, where you never know what the next year will bring.


  1. NOOOoooooo..! (A sincere & spontaneous cry of despair over the notion that a smart movie blogger actually liked this completely contrived and trite rehash of a comedy. - But I do get the appeal of the piece. And Dern is fine, much better than the film. I meant no disrespect.)

  2. Don't despair Anton, all is still right in the world - - sort of.

    And I'm usually not an Alexander Payne fan at all, finding his films dramatically light and often pretentious, really hating ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), where the only film I've really liked was ELECTION (1999).

    But the overall tone of this film is much more somber than his others, where it doesn't have that smart alecky feeling, where the central character stands for a way of life in the Midwest, in the heartland of America, where helping others typifies the regional community connections. This is a really sad film, not without moments of humor, but hardly a comedy, as it's truly despairing considering what's being lost here, as it's a part of ourselves, something of our own character that is disappearing, where that sense of small town community is being altered as family farms run for generations are being bought out by corporations.

    Bruce Dern is a truly compelling character, and the stark black & white visualizations are outstanding. I felt nothing contrived about his character, who stands for any one of our relatives who is old and near death, where they are so ashamed of their physical limitations, where they don't want anybody's help even when they need the help. Friction often develops when younger children suddenly take charge of their lives, which leaves them humiliated, because they can't do anything about it. This is a universal story, very much a sign of our times, and a warning of what will likely happen to us as well, as people live longer now, but grow feeble and old, where they can't take care of themselves. Payne puts his finger on it with a simple story above all about the importance of maintaining your pride.