Woody Grant is first shown walking against a cold wind down a Billings, Montana highway. Hunched over with age and past hardships, his gait is both determined and aimless. This is also the tone of Alexander Payne’s widescreen monochrome portrait of middle America, Nebraska. Do not let the starkness or the black and white cinematography fool you though as this film is funny, poignant and, truth be told, manipulative in all the best ways – one of my favorite films this year.
In a rightfully lauded star turn from cantankerous character actor Bruce Dern we get one of the great characters of 2013. One is never quite sure whether Woody is present or absent, or hiding something or dealing with something forgotten. A slightly addled Korean War veteran, he served his country as a mechanic. Fifty years later one sons now drives a Kia. A life-time alcoholic well into his dotage Woody has convinced himself that he has won a million dollars in one of those Publishers Clearing House style sweepstakes. Not trusting the US postal service to handle the task of getting the letter to the prize office in Lincoln, Nebraska, he is intent on making the trip across two states come hell or high water; despite lacking the means or license to drive the 800 mile stretch. One might consider Nebraska the acidic, less charming, but satirically droll shadow of David Lynch’s The Straight Story, a film that saw another old coot make a multi-state journey to hook up with estranged family. Both films nibble on the idea of dignity and empowerment and need to shake ones cart out of the rut of paralytic routine. However, where Lynch’s film is earnestly golden-yellow and lush portrait of those corn-growing states at the end of the 20th century – it even released by the Walt Disney Company – Payne’s film offers a visual portrait bordering on Gothic horror, where whole towns have dried up and are on the verge blowing away. Lynch and Payne are both from this place, and both understand the value of interesting faces. Compare the various random high-way side interviews in Lynch’s segmented indie documentary, Interview Project, to the collection of non-actors used in Nebraska, and one realizes just how much studio filmmaking does storytelling a disservice by divesting itself of both the land, favouring green-screen and backlot shooting, and its people, substituting them with trim and tanned Hollywood extras.
Seeing an opportunity to bond with his estranged father, something that apparently never occurred while growing up, youngest son David (Will Forte, quietly shining against type) offers to drive Dad to Lincoln to offer some sort of closure on what everyone but Woody knows is just a marketing gimmick. Against the protestations of his wife and Kate (verbatim: “You dumb cluck!”) Woody and son climb into David’s Subaru and off they go from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere. In a movie whose denizens use chit-chat about Pontiacs and Buicks and driving distances to fill in the wide gulf of non-conversation, I found it interesting that both of Woody’s sons drive Asian manufactured vehicles. En route, they halfheartedly check out Mt. Rushmore (“It’s unfinished!” “Why is George Washington the only one with any clothes?”) There is a vein of commentary on America that runs down deep in the film, that echoes but never gets in the way of the characters and their peculiarities.