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'Nebraska:' A finely crafted road-trip of family revelation

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Director Alexander Payne’s new film, ‘Nebraska,’ brings back his tapestry approach to on-screen interactions, weaving poignant relationships with deft splashes of comedy. ‘Nebraska’ masquerades, superficially, as a small film, but the film is truly a treasure, filled with big-time talent that subtlety examines the bonds of family.

‘Nebraska’ tells the tale of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, in one of the best roles of his career), an elderly, alcoholic father of two semi-distant (if not somewhat estranged) adult sons and husband to a long-suffering, aggravated, comedically tart-tongued wife, Kate (June Squibb). Seemingly cognitively slipping in his old age, Woody has convinced himself that the (‘Publishers’ Clearing House-esque’) Mega Sweepstakes Marketing letter he has received in the mail means that he has truly won a million dollars. Says Woody, ‘They can’t say it if it’s not so.’ Wholeheartedly convinced of his impending riches if he can only get from his home in Montana to the sweepstakes headquarters in Nebraska, Woody (unable to drive anymore) sets out on foot along a busy highway, intent to walk to another state to claim his perceived prize.

Attracting police attention during his attempted ‘walk,’ Woody is soon brought back home to Kate, who thinks her husband has entirely lost his mind, and to his unsympathetic older son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who feels little connection to his emotionally distant father. But, younger son, David (Will Forte), who sadly lives his life as a minimally successful sound system salesman, seems to take pity on his father’s Don Quixotic quest. Humoring his father (and perhaps hoping for a better bond with his old man), David decides to take Woody on a road trip to the out-of-state sweepstakes headquarters. Along the way, the duo stops in Woody’s small Nebraska hometown, where they meet extended family members and folks from Woody’s past, helping David get a better understanding of his father and his quest.

Payne, a Nebraska native and a two-time Oscar winner for screenwriting, chose to make ‘Nebraska’ even though, for the first-time, he does not share a writing credit on his film. Perhaps it was the intimacy in which we see the characters (in a script by Bob Nelson) that appealed to the native Omahaian, Payne. Certainly, Payne’s choice to film in a crisp black-and-white (and in CinemaScope) brings an immediacy to the audience, as there is no distraction from the characters, themselves. We can immediately focus on Woody’s wisps of unkempt white hair and the rumpled texture of his flannel shirt and lived-in coat. And, although, far from angelic, Kate’s halo of white hair lights around her face, perhaps symbolically reminiscent of her hidden dedication and love for her often-exasperating husband. Strangely, too, in this rare alchemy of dialogue and direction, the audience is able to identify with this dysfunctional family and its retro-familar vibe. Even though we may not all share this level of estrangement and emotional withholding, the characters are designed to be natural, plain-spoken Midwestern folks trying to cope with the all-too-modern theme of lives that did not become what they had fully expected.

Dern is really the key to the film’s success. An intriguing and, yet, somewhat subdued performance, Dern, in slumped shoulders and a shuffling gate, draws in the viewers to his pursuit of fortune and his resolute attempt at some kind of redemption for himself (and, ultimately, his family). His performance marks a very different Bruce Dern than we have previously seen on screen. Will Forte is also solid in his first, very unexpected, dramatic turn. His big, sad eyes and underlying concern for his father, also reveal a gentleness of character that has not always been present in Forte’s prior comedic work. Dern’s disheveled characterization in conjunction with Forte’s expression of inherent concern for his father bring a special quality to the film, a relatable quality, and their relationship is the crux of the film’s success. This quiet, black-and-white film with its many, often unexpected, quirky-funny, bittersweet moments, serves to remind us that we all continually seek something (attainable or not) to attempt to bring our families closer together. ‘Nebraska’ is rated 5 of 5 stars (‘highly recommended).’

‘Nebraska’ is rated ‘R’ for ‘some language.’

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