There’s something poetic about the drive from Montana to Wyoming, through South Dakota, past Mount Rushmore and into Nebraska. For the players in Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska seems to represent more of a state of mind, and in particular a collective mind that slowly slips into nothingness.
It would be easy to simply describe Bruce Dern’s ornery character as suffering from dementia, but he’s not. Dern as patriarch Woody Grant is just tired of speaking, weary from the bullshit of life; and Woody’s drunk most of the time. Woody wants to believe that he’s won a million dollars in a magazine subscription contest. We know he hasn’t and his family, Mom (June Squibb), and sons David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, known for their comedy but serious here) know he hasn’t. Nebraska is a film about people just wanting to believe in something that someone tells them.
The tagline of Easy Rider was about a person who went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. Well Woody goes looking for faith in humanity and likewise has trouble finding same. Dern would be a direct link to the Easy Rider era considering he starred in drive-in movies like Psych-Out and The Wild Angels. (Dern also has extensive credits on classic ‘60s television shows as well as parts in the Hitchcock movies Marnie and a starring role in Hitch’s last film Family Plot.)
Certainly in Payne’s hands Nebraska unfolds with a bleak feeling of hopelessness. After all, the film unwinds in glorious black-and-white and often will take in a flat landscape with an eye to matching the terrain with the feelings of the characters. When Woody and David embark on a four-state road trip to retrieve the contest money they barely stop at Mount Rushmore long enough to shot a photo. This isn’t a road trip about fun. Yet for the audience Nebraska actually evokes gales of laughter. The previously mentioned bit at Mount Rushmore was like that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation (set at the Grand Canyon) since Woody and David just get out of the car, nod and hop back in, not even driving into the parking lot.
The laughs on display aren’t so much about Middle Americans being rubes but rather the humor of family dysfunction. Eventually Mom and Ross join up on the trip when Will and Ross spend the weekend with relatives in a rural Nebraskan town. Squibb in particular gets some scene stealing laughs. Dern has one of his best parts in years and you relish every grumpy habit he exhibits. Forte has the strongest portrayal of the bunch, totally at odds with his personal beliefs yet being the loyal Sancho Panza to his Dad’s Don Quixote.
- Michael Bergeron