Before I was old enough to actually understand the jokes about sex and relationships, one of the movies I used to watch all the time as a kid was Making Mr. Right starring John Malkovich. (It had an android in it, so that was enough for me.) If I remember right, there was a fake soap opera in that film called Nebraska. Its tagline: “Nebraska. It’s not just a state, it’s a state of mind.”
In a lot of ways, that tagline fits Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska. The film isn’t set in Nebraska but Nebraska is the destination, both literally and figuratively (think Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eldorado”). Most of the film is set in sleepy places with single streets and strip malls and so-so careers and mediocre aspirations. This is flyover country, and these are some of its people, a far cry from Payne’s 2011 film The Descendants.
At first glance you’d think Nebraska was making fun of everyone who lives this way. Yet given time, the humanity of these characters shows through and Nebraska reveals a deep and unflagging love for the family at its center.
[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]
Director: Alexander Payne
Release Date: November 15th, 2013
We open in Montana. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) wanders the highway on foot en route to Nebraska. He’s received a sweepstakes notice in the mail saying that he may have already won $1 million. He’s crotchety, he’s not all there mentally, and he’s so convinced it’s legit that he’s tried to make the schlep several times on his own. His son David (Will Forte) is going through a rough, dead-end time in his own life and decides to drive his dad to Nebraska. If anything, it’ll shut him up and will lead to some quality time with the old man. Before hitting the sweepstakes headquarters, it’s a stop his mom and dad’s hometown where everyone — family, friends, acquaintances — slips out from behind the chintzy wood-paneling for a handout.
In my notes I wrote down that Nebraska was like Raising Arizona by way of The Last Picture Show. It’s not quite accurate. The black-and-white photography and the settings have the look of a post-bubble Last Picture Show, but while Nebraska is wacky to a degree, it’s nowhere near as wacky as Raising Arizona. There’s a weird sadness to Nebraska as well as a warmth, as if every one of its characters is suffering from some secret wound that’s been scabbed over with eccentricity.
What’s great about the way the film unfolds is that the wounds affecting our principle characters are rarely disclosed outright. Most of the hints are single lines or little looks or steady accretions of detail. We get enough of a sense of what’s the matter to understand them and empathize. It’s a bit like how the long takes and wide cinematography in Nebraska function: Payne holds on the shot long enough so that the composition, the performances, the duration, or combinations of all three disclose the underlying beauty and tone of the moment.
For part of its duration, Nebraska is a road movie, which is familiar territory for Payne given About Schmidt and Sideways. Bob Nelson’s script expresses a strange truth about father-and-son bonding on the road: there’s a lot of awkward silence. Woody’s described as “not the talkative type” or something like that, and it’s all that needs to be said to typify a certain generation and a certain set of rural, working-class values. If you’ve had a distant relationship with your dad that lasted well into your adulthood, it’s a bit too accurate. David resents his dad for being a drunk, and at this point in life, Woody doesn’t seem able to make heartfelt disclosures or apologize for anything.
Forte again demonstrates a knack for playing the occasionally funny straight man. His performance in Run and Jump was similarly dutiful, though he played a character with a much greater sense of agency and self-worth. Dern is pretty phenomenal as a the gnarled Woody. He may not be the talkative type, but when he talks, he can say a lot by saying very little. Or perhaps he says a lot by saying something contrary to the truth. Most of Dern’s performance is posture and eyes, especially when Woody slips into a ruminative fog. I don’t know if I can always read Woody’s thoughts — the character is well-realized while his of-the-moment inner workings are purposefully opaque — but I can always tell that he’s thinking.
Nebraska really comes into its own when Kate (Woody’s wife/David’s mom) shows up. Kate propels this film, allowing Payne more opportunities to explore the past of the Grant family. Kate’s played by June Squibb, who’s a mix of dynamite and battle axe. By mid-film, any time Squibb’s on screen it’s hard to take your eyes off her in anticipation of what she might say or do. Squibb’s a shoe-in for some sort of Best Supporting Actress honor because she makes such a lasting impression. She may seem one-note to start, but there’s so much more that’s obliquely revealed about why Kate is the way she is and what she really feels deep down.
It’s so rare that movies contain rich parts for older women, which is probably why Squibb stands out so much in Nebraska. So many talented actresses no longer have a place in the film world and are forced to find work on the stage or television once they get close to middle age. Squibb’s take on Kate serves as a reminder of the untapped potential for older female characters with such personality and gusto. The reminders come every few years, almost always from indie movies, and the plaudits usually well-deserved. I don’t expect Squibb’s example to change things for the better, but I hope it does.
What’s most fascinating about Dern and Squibb’s performances isn’t their age. It’s that they’re both so consistent from beginning to end, but the little character ticks deepen in meaning and significance. I don’t necessarily think these characters change — change is difficult after a certain age — but our understanding of them certainly does. Much of this is the undeniable strength of Dern and Squibb, but I also think a lot of it has to do with Nelson’s script and its ability to accept the eccentricities of its characters as a given and try to understand them.
That may be the unspoken role for David in Nebraska: accept and understand. He haplessly maneuvers the perils of his extended family and his father’s past actions, and he’s an all right vessel for the audience encountering these little towns and shag carpeted living rooms. Part of me wishes there’d been a meatier part for Bob Odenkirk, who plays David’s brother Ross, but maybe one Grant boy is enough for the majority of this journey; David has more to gain from the experience. It’s too late to go back and change things, and there’s no reliving lost time. All David can hope to do is help his dad reach a Nebraska state of mind and maybe figure out where his own life is headed on the way.
[Nebraska will screen at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, October 12th. For tickets and more information, click here.]