2013. CGI is part of 90% of film production (even those you’d think don’t have any special effects). Action films that require stunt coordination and the careful designing of action sequences are taking over the multiplexes and young audience flock to the cinema to see how a boy controls a fleet of starships, how the hobbits fight evil and fantastic creatures, how some super heroes demonstrate their out-of-this-world super powers and how the latest car models rush through the streets of the world, not to mention the latest animation fantasies from Disney, Dreamworks, etc.
In this landscape, Alexander Payne has dusted off Bruce Dern’s acting chops and placed his absent minded expression against the winter Midwestern landscape, in black and white, with no major action sequence than having him walk the streets towards his life’s ultimate goal: to retrieve his million dollars, won on a magazine sweepstakes sent to him by mail.
I’m not assuming the same audience that makes Hollywood magnates richer than they expected, is sitting quietly and watching Nebraska. I turn around in a little independently owned theatre and see most of the cinema filled with people way older than me. They could be my parents, or great parents. There’s no cheers or teenager throwing popcorn. No cellphone texting or rings. People here respect the age-old event of going to watch a movie. And even if they don’t amount to the top ten all time grossing films with their astronomic figures, Nebraska has made over 10 millions by the time I’m typing this comment, and with its Golden Globe nomination, it’s Best Actor Win at Cannes and its sure prospects for the Oscars, it might very well surpass 50 millions easily, which, with its 12 million budget is…respectable and speaks volumes of how this kind of films that brings us back to the pleasure of “watching” is not dead as many would like you to believe. In fact, soon there will be studies about how a new sub-genre has been born out of old and seemingly decaying actors.
Not that this is a new thing. After all, 1950’s ‘Sunset Blvd’ and 1962’s ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ were all about older and burnt out characters and the studios trembled at the idea of having Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson commanding their new moneymakers. But there is a trend now. Check out Stallone’s newfound franchises: ‘The expendables’ which came out along with ‘Red’ depicting sixty-something Helen Mirren with a machine gun. These are films about mature people showing the world how Kick-ass they still are. But, of course ‘Nebraska’ is not on the same frequency. It is more in the field of Payne’s other film ‘About Schmidt’ with Jack Nicholson, or this year Oscar contender for Best Actor ‘All Is Lost’ with Robert Redford. It is a trend and a subgenre that floods the multiplexes more and more.
But watching ‘Nebraska’ you feel this is not a film that follows trends. If anything, this film follows Payne’s extraordinarily quiet body of work. From ‘Election’ to ‘The Descendants’, Payne has been building an American Topography (as much as the Coen Brothers have): from sunny Napa Valley to the mountains of Nebraska, his characters are not exceptionally gifted, nor have they experienced success in any way that society might log in its books. These people sit and watch TV, have 8-hours of labor everyday and eat quietly at their kitchen table. They also endure the daily town gossips, problems with their plumbing and the need to get a truck. And, of course, the silence.
In this landscape of the mundane, ‘Nebraska’ reigns as a jewel in the 2013’s film arena. It is a black and white film (how else would you depict the cold weather in a little town in the middle of nowhere?) that follows 80-year old Woody Grant as he can’t seem to understand that he’s being scammed by the “oldest trick in the sales-book”, but still seems to hold on to that with a pretty clear objective in mind, even if everybody else thinks the man’s brain has shut down for good.
Nevertheless, his ordeal is so strong and stubborn, that he brings his younger son with him, his “talkie” wife, and becomes the new legend in his little hometown (which also opens a can of worms when his friends and relatives want a share of the wealth he hasn’t even gotten).
Payne’s script is brilliant in its simple and very focused structure. It develops so naturally that moments of pure common comedy happen out of nowhere and have a lasting effect because we’ve experienced them at certain times. Not the laughs of a joke that will be forgotten, but the very funny moments that are treasured as part of an uncharted chapter in our lives.
Bruce Dern comes back to create a mythical character, with a performance that endures. Along with him, the cast includes Will Forte, June Squibb and Stacy Keach, and everyone else who makes up Woody’s family and friends.
When you end up comparing a film with Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 ‘Wild Strawberries’ you know you’re dealing with something that hardly hits the theaters anymore or that today’s audiences (even those who study film as a career) know nothing about. In the Swedish film, Dr. Isak Borg embarks on a road trip to Lund where he is to be awarded with an honorary degree. On the way, he visits his past and makes amends with the people in his life. Woody’s journey has a similar scope (as much as that of Alvin in David Lynch’s ‘A Straight Story’) and comparable outcome. When he looks at his abandoned childhood bedroom and remembers he was usually beaten there…"I guess no one's beating me anymore", you get the sense of a long life lived, and how someone who seems to have not achieved much, has become a beautiful man.