This is the year for actors (among them septuagenarians) who have been on the back-burner for years, or been cast as one-dimensional movie “idols”, finally getting the opportunity to forego the razzle-dazzle of stardom, and actually “strut their stuff.” Bruce Dern who stars in NEBRASKA directed by Alexander Payne is formidable as Woody Grant, a man clearly in the early stages of dementia, consumed with the belief that he has won a million dollars in one of those unscrupulous Sweepstake scams that target “senior citizens.” The official looking papers that come in the mail announcing the “award” are designed with such a flourish that unwitting recipients are blinded by the gilt-bordered inscriptions, oblivious to the realities secreted in the fine print, and clutch their “prize” notifications as if it were an antidote to the pain of past aberrations and disappointments.
NEBRASKA is an eccentric movie, in that it is both comedic and tragic, filmed entirely in black and white referencing the stark, bleak landscape populated by mostly elderly folk who are living out their last years sitting around watching “the cars pass by”. The lack of color suggests the wrenching nostalgia of time gone by, and befits the mood of Bruce Dern’s depiction of an elderly man who is dreaming of the future, but in his attempt to reach that dream, steps back into his past.
There is a fierce urgency about Woody who refuses to be hindered from leaving his home in Billings Montana (the local police have found him on the road and deposited him back to his family numerous times) in an attempt to reach Lincoln Nebraska to collect his winnings. Woody’s whole being is concentrated on reaching that goal - both psychologically and physically - white wisps of electrified hair creating a halo of wild disorder framing his head, and a look in his eyes that is both determined and vacant. He moves slowly with a staggering, faltering gait that belies the strong conviction that he is finally a “winner.”
We meet Woody’s family, frustrated in their ability to control his obsession, aware that he is slowly “disappearing” as evident by the often emptiness of his fixed gaze. His son David, sensitively played by Will Forte, has compassion for his father’s situation, eventually accompanying Woody on his quixotic quest with the hope of finally garnering the emotional connection that he had never received. A spirited June Squibb is wonderful as the sturdy, clear-minded, foul-mouthed, and fiery wife Kate, who has had it with her husband, exhausted from watching over him, but the tensile bonds of time, despite the impediments of drinking and womanizing, cannot be expunged. She is the person we all want on our side when the sharks are circling.
There are many wonderful characters in NEBRASKA, although at first I feared that they were too stereotypical, but as the movie unfurled getting better and better – the director’s affection for his colorful, laconic characters became apparent. Stacy Keach, plays the perfect rogue as the former business partner of Woody Grant, initially basking in the reflected glow of a friend’s jackpot - as do the rest of the community and extended family - excited by being in the presence of the idea of so much money, but shortly we see the emergence of self-interest and avariciousness exposed.
NEBRASKA deals mainly with sentiment and rarely gets sentimental, giving the audience both an entertaining and penetrating portrait of a man who is evaporating into his own body, and the persistence in which he pursues what we all know is a barren mission. The will to accomplish this pursuit and how it affects those around him makes this movie a gem.