A marvelous film that will most likely resonate with many for its humor, and off beat wackiness is the indie film Nebraska.. Smartly directed by Alexander Payne (Oscar win for Sideways and Descendants adapted screenplays) and hoisted to excellence by Bob Nelson‘s sharp, cogent screenplay, one can appreciate that it is a well wrought film from beginning to end.
From its black and white, washed out, wide-angled cinematography and bleak, burnt out, roughly hewn landscapes that serve as a springboard for the understated, “simplistic” story, to the complex themes of persistence, faith and unspoken ties of connection that bind families together, it was as if the director and his cast delivered each scene up to the muse of film craft. And the muse sifted it back to the audience with brio and a slap on the back as if to say, “How d’ya like that scene?” Well, the audience at the 21st Hamptons International Film Festival where the film screened in October laughed throughout and showed they liked it a lot by standing and applauding as the credits rolled. Many stayed for the Q and A with Bruce Dern and Will Forte to discuss the screening they so enjoyed.
One of the subjects that came up was Payne’s decision to avoid color and configure his shots with visuals that appear grainy and coarsely graded. The actors affirmed Payne’s choice: it fits the themes and setting, and it enhances the characterization. The pale shadows and lack of color brilliantly reflect the people and economics of the film’s primary setting, the small Montana town and surrounding farms. There, individuals’ hopes and ambitions have dried up like the parched, blasted land they look at daily. Certainly, the cinematography is the perfect backdrop for the blunt, homespun character of Woody Grant. (Bruce Dern won an award at Cannes for his performance.) The greys reminiscent of the greying populace provide a contrast to the thimbleful of color and hope that pushes Woody Grant to a uniquely creative act, an act which saves him and immeasurably strengthens his relationship with his sons.
Bruce Dern is Woody Grant from top to toe. It is as if he stepped out of your imagination to be what a taciturn and crotchety former alcoholic should be. He owns the part; I cannot imagine anyone else doing as remarkable a job, Dern’s portrayal is that impeccable.
Dern’s Woody reveals a mid western man with an alcohol problem barely scrabbling out a living, though he has been a good neighbor. He is going through the motions of living the waning decades of his life in an uneventful suburb of Billings, Montana with little to do except watch TV, go to the neighborhood bar, visit neighbors and work around the house. We discover that he has often been more generous with others in helping them out than he has been with himself and his family. In his 70s, he recognizes that his candle is dimming and there are still a few things he’d like to add to his life.
Woody has two sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk gives an excellent assist to the family unit.) is settled and thriving. The other son, David (Will Forte in a mature, measured, effective performance as Woody’s impassive, low key, sounding board) is at a dead end and living at home with his parents. David is trying to figure himself out amidst his carping, mildly quarrelsome Dad and his sharp-tongued, blunt-humored mom, Kate (June Squibb is absolutely hysterical; her comedic sense is exceptional.). Kate daily blasts retorts at Woody’s complaints with dense one liners that are brilliant; both David and Woody expect it of her and rarely react with any emotion. It is the family’s way through the daily routines.
The situation becomes absolutely skewed from the regularity of grey days and long nights when Woody receives a letter claiming that he has received a $1 million dollar prize; he must get to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the money. It is a promotional letter sent out to thousands and there is fine print that Woody doesn’t read. This letter becomes his raison d’etre. Despite Woody’s cajoling and carping, Kate refuses to drive him to Nebraska, tongue lashing him more roundly than usual. Since Woody can’t drive himself, (His license was taken away.) he leaves the house and starts his journey on foot. His determination is impressive and admirable, especially after he is picked up by the local officer a few times and returned home only to go out the next day on foot. Each time he is picked up and deposited back home, Kate upbraids him with cayenne lashing words that roll off Woody’s stoic back.
If anything, Woody’s perseverance and determination are extraordinary. Woody will either have to be locked up in jail or a mental institution as a preventative precaution to protect him or he will die of exposure, a fall or worse on his walking journey to Nebraska. But he will get that money for the truck; it’s that important to him. And if he dies trying, that’s OK. At least he tried.
Woody’s act has the rudiments of the absurd. It’s pure foolishness, but it expresses a blind faith that can move mountains. Some part of David is stirred by his father’s creative will and he responds with a beautiful and quiet act of grace. He will accompany his Dad on a father-son road trip to Nebraska to pick up the prize money which David has told Woody repeatedly won’t be there for him. David will drive him and on the way they will stop off to see family.
The premise is as crazy as the characters seem. But this is not hard-nosed NYC, it is Montana with a “heading to Nebraska” twist. It seems completely appropriate for the place and time. (The brilliant actors and logic of the script bring you to acceptance.) Woody’s behavior is not labeled as Alzheimer’s or senility, though that probably would have been a diagnosis leveled in a big city. David and even Kate (despite herself ) respect him and honor him. It is that love we are attracted to and find refreshing and endearing. The family in a way that may be unusual for many of us to see pulls together and supports each other. This scenario creates a domino effect that exponentially grows into an adventurous, fun and completely realistic romp into human nature, the covetousness of others (What happens when others find out you’ve won a million?), and the empathy of a son for his father. We eagerly go along for the ride with wholesome abandon whither the film takes us which is straight to our own heart.
As it turns out, miracles do happen, if there is love. Woody does get his truck. More importantly, the sons have been restored to their father and a new bond has been forged from Woody’s stubborn insistence to do something outlandish. Is there a greater message here we can glean from Woody’s example about putting all your will and effort into achieving what you desire? Perhaps. But what can’t be missed is the very real actions of love, empathy and the connection of family. These are values Payne’s film upholds with a vengeance as great as Woody’s will to go to Nebraska.
Q & A With Will Forte and Bruce Dern
In the Q and A Bruce Dern discussed that the film took around 10 years to get the project together. Aware of the screenplay, Dern was interested from the outset and wanted the role which Payne thought he could do. Then along came Sideways and then Descendants and Payne was caught up in those projects. Was the film ever going to be made? Finally, it was under way and Dern was on board. He learned that Payne had always thought he would be right for the part and that it should go to him.
Dern’s training which included the Actor’s Studio (under Lee Strausberg) and working with Elia Kazan taught him not to “push” or “go for the result.” Over the years he tried not to “show” anger or emotion. The techniques he used help him to be real and be honest while doing the work of the role. His performance in this film is one of the highpoints of his career. It is a tribute to his training that Woody Grant is. In a segue about his teammate Will Forte, Dern gave him a great compliment about Will Forte’s acting. Dern said that Will “was the lynchpin of the film.” Without Forte’s performance, Dern’s performance would have been impacted differently and he suggested they both worked off each other. Forte got the character of David. In his honesty he is warm and funny without “showing” it. Forte said he loved the script when he read it and felt the character was accessible to him. Forte said the writing was beautiful and he really had a desire to do the role.
Nebraska will be released on November 15, 2013.