Director: Alexander Payne / Screenplay: Bob Nelson / Editing: Kevin Tent / DP: Phedon Papamichael / Music: Mark Orton
Cast: Bruce Dern / Will Forte / June Squibb / Bob Odenkirk / Stacey Keach / Mary Louise Wilson / Rance Howard / Tim Driscoll / Devin Ratray / Angela McEwan / Missy Doty
Fifty One Shades of Grey…
If proof were needed, that it’s possible to be a credited writer on a franchise movie and then go on to a ‘proper’ career, making films for ‘grown-ups’ (as opposed to movies for, *Ahem*, kids), look no further than Alexander Payne, whose credited as a writer on Jurassic Park 3 (2001)…
One of a vanishing breed of writer-directors, Payne’s breakthrough for me, came with the acerbic About Schmidt (2002), gifting a late-career (and redefining) role for Jack Nicholson, that earnt Golden Globe wins for Nicholson and Payne’s script, about a man in search of answers to forgotten & buried secrets. It was followed two years later by another questing film – Sideways (2004) – in which Paul Giamatti & Thomas Haden Church embark on a bittersweet tour of Californian vineyards, prior to one of them getting married; a trip in which their thwarted dreams & aspirations are laid bare. Then came a break, before The Descendants (2011); Payne one of a trio adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about a Hawaiian landowner reconnecting with land & family in the wake of a serious injury sustained by his wife. That film, the third in an enviable run of distinctive, thoughtful & nuanced pictures, succeeded in grounding George Clooney, in a role that saw him bear the schlubby air of middle age with aplomb. All three films are characterised by having strong roles for middle-aged men, who’re coming to-terms with their advancing decrepitude and wondering, both within and without, where it all went wrong…
It was a question only partly answered in Nebraska (2013).
Bob Nelson was the writer here; prompted to write the screenplay for Nebraska when his regular TV-writing gig was cancelled. His sparkling, funny, slice-of-life drama about a son reconnecting with an irascible, diffident father over the course of an unexpected road trip, tipped it firmly into Payne’s wheelhouse, but the director had just finished Sideways at the time and, understandably, didn’t want to take-on another picture revolving around ‘two guys in a car’. Fast-forward a few years and, with Descendants gotten-away and no other interest shown in Nebraska, Payne jumped-in. In hindsight, the decision appears inevitable. Payne was himself from Nebraska and felt comfortable returning to shoot in a territory he knew well, filled as it is, with warm-hearted, though often taciturn characters; Nelson was from neighbouring South Dakota, so was covering familiar ground.
The film opens with a shock to the senses. Crikey! It’s a contemporary picture, photographed in glorious Black and White; whatever did Payne DO, to have Paramount to agree to that, I wonder? By common consent, B&W is the kiss-of-death for a film’s commercial potential, though a Best Picture Oscar for The Artist (2011), will have gone a long way to convince the bean-counters. Like it or not, B&W has its own undeniable magic. True, it harks back to that far off ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, but by losing the wider spectrum, both Director and DP are
forced encouraged to explore texture and the senses beyond what the lazy eye alone supplies. In an age when colour is everything, a B&W picture somehow offers more amidst the shades of grey.
So here comes Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, stumbling towards the camera, alongside a highway’s crash barrier. It’s winter. He’s walking. From back there to over thataway. In a land this bleak, it’s hard to notice we’re watching B&W, when silver-haired Woody is picked-up by a concerned Sherriff.
His son, David (Will Forte) meets him at the Sheriff’s office with a forced breeziness (‘Here he is. The man of the hour’), but it’s easy to read between the lines and see that these two have danced this routine before. Woody’s got a bee in his bonnet, about getting to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his current town of Billings, Montana, in order to claim his ‘prize’ of a ‘million dollars’; he’s convinced he’s won a marketing sweepstake. What struck me, as a resident of the compact UK, was that this represents a roughly 1800-mile round-trip, in pursuit of a nebulous dream, that could be avoided if either Woody or David had just checked the allotted numbers in advance. But, as we’ll discover, the film’s not about the money, so no-one’s going to be checking the numbers anytime soon…
Writer Nelson, was originally inspired by reading reports of elderly recipients of similar letters, driving across the USA in pursuit of ‘their winnings’, so convinced they’d won they didn’t feel the need to check beforehand… It’s amazing what some people will trust to blind faith alone; a bit like film-making, to a degree. As William Goldman once said of the movie business: ‘Nobody knows anything’.
Watching the two of them together, in just this opening scene, was enough to convince me of their relationship, thanks largely to Dern’s performance as much as Nelson’s script. Prior to Nebraska, you have to go back decades to find a leading performance from Dern that’s in something this good: and he knows it: watch how the emotions play over his face, as his dream, is punctured by a sceptical David. There’s a delight, there. A defiance in his self-pitying whine and stuck-out chin. Even his now-wispy crop of hair looks like it’s capable of escaping by itself. I wondered, as I watched him go through the gears, how much of what I was seeing, was informed by Dern’s own sense of never having landed The Big Roles in movies? So, to see him here, giving his all to a beautifully measured & crafted role, is a real privilege and credit to Payne, not only for thinking of Dern as his first choice for Woody but, in the end, realising Dern was his only choice.
Opposite him, is Will Forte as David. I confess to not being aware of Forte’s work before this picture, but IMDB tells me he’d hitherto been in a scattering of B-Grade comedies, so Nebraska represented a change of pace & tone. He’s no more than okay in the role, but that’s as much to do with the writing as Forte’s ability. Besides, he was up against a tenacious Dern, who was savouring every line as he‘d been rehearsing them for years (which he probably had been, given he first saw a script seven years prior to production).
David drives him back to the family home; a modest, wood-framed affair ruled over by mom Kate – a feisty, opinionated character played by June Squibb; an actress Payne had used before (in Schmidt) and who runs with Nelson’s unfiltered stream-of-consciousness. Take her reaction when David returns with Woody:
Kate: ‘You dumb cluck! You pretty near gave me a heart attack!’
Woody: ‘Oh, cool your jets!’
Kate (to David): This is the second time he’s tried to sneak out. I never knew the son-of-a-bitch even wanted to be a millionaire. He should’ve thought about that years ago and worked for it.’
Woody’s written as a curmudgeon with a curious inner life, whereas Kate is straight-as-a-die and no stranger to Woody’s oddities, that much is clear. She says: ‘Do you know what I’d do with a million dollars? Put him in a home!’ This, in an off-screen exchange with David, that’s heard by us – and by Woody, as he settles-in to his favourite couch, to dream of what HE wants to do with the money: buy a new truck and an air compressor to replace the one lent to a friend in 1974…
Some losses fall harder than others, but the truck’s important to Woody. He has one already; an old model that’s been sat in the garage for ten years-and-counting, with an undiagnosed fault. But he identifies with it. Like his old truck, his older life is now stuck and no longer moving forward. That truck represents freedom and a dignity that he finds hard to find in a Toyota Camry; a car carefully chosen as the acme of mediocrity.
But above Freedom & Dignity, sits virility. In Woody’s world, men with trucks have jobs. Their days have purpose. They’re relied upon by others. By family. Woody’s life has none of that now, which is probably why he feels so restless; an urgency to claim the money and make these changes ‘before it’s too late’. He wants to feel again, be it something or anything. Trouble is, Nelson’s script now reveals the two realities clouding Woody’s judgement. First and most obvious, is a touch of senility creeping-in to his social interactions & skills. Second, is that Woody’s revealed to be a ‘functioning alcoholic’; a habit formed early, out in the Nebraskan prairie of his youth.
We’re told this by David’s older brother, Ross; Bob Odenkirk in a confining role, relying on gesture to convey meaning as much as (sparse) dialogue. Ross is a newly-promoted newscaster on a local TV station, who’s taking advantage of a colleague’s illness by filling ‘her chair’. The zeal with which he explains this to David (after admitting to sabotaging Woody’s truck), reveals his adoption of a ‘go-getting’ approach to his career, that marks him out as perhaps the family’s only high-flier, as much as it informs his attitude towards his father.
Being the eldest son, Ross has likely seen Woody at his worse-for-drink. His memories are, ironically for a B&W film, more ‘colourful’, which might explain the snippiness he bats back to his dad; that, as much as the demands of a job he can’t easily walk away from, so there’s resentment there. Ross is the eldest and, traditionally, the one who’s called on, yet David’s in the dead-end job and, therefore, has least to lose by getting involved in dad’s cockamamy scheme. But it doesn’t stop Ross from feeling a little guilty about being his mother’s son, not his father’s.
No, that’s David’s allotted role in life. He works at a Hi-Fi store. He lives in a tiny, anonymous apartment, recently vacated by Nöel, his live-in girlfriend for the last two years. Unlike Ross, David is starting to look as washed-up as Woody, but without even the demon drink to blame. He can see the futility in Woody’s quest, as much as the blind faith that’s driving him on. Father and son therefore find themselves both at their own crossroads-of-life, uncertain of which way to go.
Fate lends a hand, when Woody’s found at the bus station, trying once more to reach Lincoln and the nebulous treasure he believes is waiting for him there. David relents – of course – and offers to drive him in his Subaru Outback; another perfect choice of car, for the son of a Camry owner, looking to express himself as an outdoorsy, spirited individual, being practical, not showy; hardy, yet reliable and, in a reversal of Woody’s M.O., possessing a modest thirst.
It’s decided, that if they’re going all that way, that our heroes detour via Hawthorne; the sleepy Nebraskan farming town, in which Woody grew up, before he and Kate moved two states away, to Montana. He still has brothers living there and wider family: they could ‘catch up’. Which, after an underwhelming look at Mt. Rushmore, they do. Having not seen each other in over twenty years, this is the exchange between Woody and older brother Ray:
Ray: ‘What’s up, Woody?’
Woody: ‘Nothing. How about you?’
Ray: ‘Not much.’
This leaves David to make small talk with his shady cousins Bart & Cole and their mother, the live-wire Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson). As she puts it:
Aunt Martha: ‘This economy has just torn-up Hawthorne, Davey. Things are hard for young men.’
David: ‘Yeah. I’m in the home-theatre and electronics business myself. It’s a rough time, I’ll tell you that.’
Ray: [pause] ‘Cole, here, did some jail…’
The writing is so airy and economical, it needs little more. And it’s FUNNY. Bob Nelson & Director Payne both know how these people think. Consider the scene that follows, in which the reunited group are watching TV in a communal act of brotherhood; spoilt only by Bart & Cole laughing again, recalling David’s admission of this journey time from home (‘Two days to drive seven hundred and fifty miles? Son-of-a-bitch must’ve driven in-reverse!). Or consider a later scene, in a bar, where David admits his relationship had failed, to a father indifferent to his suffering. As the conversation turns darker, he asks Woody if he even wanted kids: ‘I figured if we kept on screwin’, we’d end up with a couple of you’. Throughout, Woody’s been an exemplar of taciturn behaviour, but only shows animation now, when defending his drinking. He can’t see how it affects him and those around him or, if he can, he no longer cares: ‘It ain’t your job to tell me what to do, you little cocksucker!’
It’s at another bar, where Woody runs into Ed Pegram, a salty bear of an ex-business partner (and original recipient of Woody’s compressor), played by a low-key Stacey Keach. It follows, that because Woody’s addled as much as he is compelled to show his old friend that he finally came good, he shoots his mouth off about the money and, before breakfast the next morning, the whole town’s heard the ‘good news’.
The return of sanity begins the moment Kate steps from a bus and it’s a delight to watch her steal EVERY scene she’s then in. First, a memorable sequence in a graveyard, in which she talks about the people below the headstones. She’s irreverent and funny, but director Payne frames the context skilfully, by showing the seamless join betwixt graveyard and the very fields in which these people spent the bulk of their lives. They’re now all-but forgotten ghosts of a hard-lived past, yet these same rolling hills & fields remain.
Implacable. Indifferent as they roll-out to an endless horizon.
At one point, Pegram says: ‘That’s the trouble with beer. You’re only renting it’. One might say the same of Man’s relationship with these hills…
The film ends with a double dose of redemption. David finally comes into his power during a confrontation with Pegram, earning himself a little self-respect, as well as a reminder of his unfulfilled potential. I get the feeling that David’s never been comfortable trying to emulate his brother’s success; too ground-down by a tetchy father and embittered mother. His last scene shows him laugh for the first time during the film and that’s an achievement.
Woody, too, finally achieves that which he has been looking for, all along: dignity. He may not have won the money, but he carries himself as if he has, to the very end of the picture. It was never about the money, in any case, but his nagging sense that he was facing the final chapter with nothing to show for his life; that he had nothing to pass-on. To Woody, the sweepstake was a chance at writing-the-wrongs and assuage the one surplus amassed from a dissolute life: guilt.
In the end, he realises it wasn’t the money he needed, but something else. In the case of Nebraska, I think it’s about how you’re remembered. This is all Woody needed: to be remembered as a winner, not the loser he actually turned out to be and who, up to his reappearance, he’d been thought of. In the process, he reacquires his dignity and, perhaps, the forgiveness of a son who, to that point, hadn’t considered all that his dad might’ve gone through; experiences that almost certainly contributed to his drinking.
Having just watched the film twice, I’ll take away DP Papamichael’s majestic landscapes and his ability to light the granite-like faces of Woody’s extended family, as if they were living extensions to Mt. Rushmore. Add-in Payne’s skill at coaxing such naturalistic & un-showy performances from his players; a trait common to all his films. The late-career revelation of Bruce Dern and the discovery (for me, at least) of June Squibb. Bob Nelson’s writing and the film’s measured pace. The beautiful score by Mark Orton…
Problems? Few and far between. Will Forte as David just disappeared for me, as if unable to find an identity in the role; he was so much of a sponge for everything going on around him, that it left the character shapeless. Though David’s final emergence did lend him a little distinction, he’d been too much the passenger and not enough of a driver to that point. I also thought the cousins were played well, but their writing verged too close to mummery at-times, to sit happily with the rest of the piece.
Lastly, there’s this unavoidable snag: that the whole movie might’ve been skewered, had someone bothered to show disbelievers of Woody’s good fortune, the original sweepstake letter. So obvious is this, that Nelson holds its production almost to the end, where it’s used to humiliate Woody; an effective scene to be sure, but Nelson had little choice but to hold his McGuffin in-reserve to the bitter end, lest he lose the picture.
The film is also firmly planted within an established sub-genre of Drama (the ‘Road Movie’) and, as such, is both blessed and burdened by its now-expected conventions. It’s territory that Payne knows well from his previous films, but in Nebraska, just as he showed in Sideways, there are new angles to be found, if the writing is sound and characters are diligently cast.
It’s to Payne’s credit then, as much as the talented crew he assembled, that his films achieve that rare distinction of being both critically acclaimed and commercially successful; at least they did, until he chose to Downsize…
I’d have got whipped if they found me in here. Guess no-one’s gonna whip me now…