By: Daniel Reynolds
It is chicken and egg proposition when thinking about the films of Alexander Payne. Does he settle on a location first or is he drawn to the character? As it stands, the two always feel of a piece, inextricably linked; the man and his land. In The Descendants it was a confused family man and the ocean views of Hawaii, for Sideways the cranky divorcee and the sun dappled Napa Valley. Payne has taken us to Nebraska, his home state, twice before – in About Schmidt and Election – but in both the setting wasn’t quite the star. Those films feel like precursors in a way, like Payne was still searching for a dynamite character to draw out and represent the land he himself calls home. Maybe I just answered my chicken and egg question. And yet with Payne’s latest film, Nebraska, and its hero, Woody Grant, maybe this is besides the point. The man and his land feel born of the same time, one unable to exist without the other.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), upon learning that he has won a million dollars in an old school sweepstakes, decides he is going to walk from the modest home he shares with his wife, Kate (June Squibb), in Billings, Montana all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. He does this primarily because, despite desiring a new truck, he can no longer drive. But also, since the winnings are definitely not real, his family is not willing to help; they’ll only corral him from whatever road, or police station, or hospital he wanders into. Along with his wife, Woody has two sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte). Both are in those middle-aged years that suggest either commitment or a fear of it. Ross mentions a family (dance recitals to attend, a wife to appease) but we never see them. David lives alone. Briefly, a girlfriend turns up and gives an exhausted speech that underlines the end of their relationship. For David, suddenly a road trip with his prickly father sounds like a good idea. And so, off the two go into the wild yonder of small towns and half-remembered extended family on their way to Nebraska.
Shot in black-and-white, Nebraska develops as a series of comic misadventures. Woody loses and finds his teeth, Woody talks about the joys of family (“I liked screwin’!”), Woody and David see Mount Rushmore. The script from Bob Nelson eventually fleshes out the Grant family in Hawthorne, Nebraska. There are odd cousins, silent uncles and chatty aunts. Everything feels both inviting and desolate. Despite having two great comedic actors (Odenkirk and Forte), the funniest bits come from this oddball collection of characters, particularly Squibb, who clearly revels in playing her tough ol’gal role. Her Kate is the kind of grandmother who forgets nothing, reminds you of everything, and defends her family to the end. Meanwhile, Forte acts as the sensitive, innocent David, standing in as conduit between past and present, character and audience. His role is thankless but very necessary.
As with any trip down memory lane, nostalgia has its price. In Nebraska, that price is embodied by the smooth tenor of Stacy Keach, as Woody’s old partner Ed Peagram. Keach offers up a different slice of small time life; he’s the big fish in the small pond, the king pin who can get everyone clapping at a karaoke buffet but is not above doing a little vague threatening if he feels he is getting jilted. The money may not be real, but everyone in Hawthorne feels like Woody may owe them something. Payne allows these moments between town folk to simmer perfectly in their specificity. He understands the interplay between old brothers (hint: they don’t talk much), and old friends (clue: they’ve got axes to grind). That Payne also understands how this relates to town and country, to main streets and corner taverns, to old rural newspapers run by long lost sweethearts is all the more significant. This is not a film that looks down its nose.
It all starts and stops with Dern though. As a character, Woody feels at first familiar (shades of About Schmidt or David Lynch’s The Straight Story abound). Introduced as a cranky old coot, constantly reprimanded for his drinking, Woody appears as a text book case of a certain type of rural hard man. Aided by Dern’s wild haired visage and blunt speech, Woody seems to be both driven and adrift, like he was cast out on an ice floe and periodically remembers how to row himself back to shore. The grace of the film comes in those moments between Dern, his landscape, and the minute revelations he almost accidentally shares with his son. Through David we learn the family history, through Kate we learn of the skeletons in the closet, but with Woody, it is different. Dern’s eyes invert the whole preconceived notion of his character, they drive us to understand what kind of man Woody was and is. He only talks about himself matter-of-factly, as if you’d be dumb not to already know the truth, but his eyes flicker at hints of memory, of a life not led. It is not quite sadness or regret, just the realization that regardless of the path taken, his is coming to an end.
Despite not actually having written Nebraska, I can’t help but feel like Payne’s career has somehow been leading to this. The film has a beautiful grasp of what it feels like to live in a small town; the closeness, the history, the boredom. I can’t separate the structure of its story from Payne’s command and vision. There are laughs had at some of the peculiarities of its people, but they don’t feel cheap. There is a sad sweetness here that never feels maudlin. As with the best films, Woody Grant, his story and life, his family, his thoughts and dreams – however unspoken – feel lived in and worked over. The prize money was never real, but the rest is; the man and his land together forever.