Film review: More sideways than straight, a story of our times
On receiving a letter giving notice that he’s the lucky winner of one million dollars, septuagenarian Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, the father of Laura) doesn’t stop to question the letter’s authenticity and instead hits the road for Lincoln, Nebraska, with the intention of collecting his winnings.
Fearing him to be mentally unstable, his worried family quickly combine their efforts to bring him home and make him realise the exploitative nature of these prize draws. Even while enduring the consequent onslaught of his nagging wife, Woody remains resolute: he still intends to collect those winnings.
When his son David attempts to convince Woody of the implausibility of there being any money to claim, he sees the detrimental effect his words have on his father’s spirits. Instead of dissuading his father from journeying south, he ends up offering to drive him – and thus begins a road trip that crosses both state lines and family limits…
There’s a distinctly independent feeling about Nebraska, despite it being the latest film from acclaimed talent Alexander Payne, the director of About Schmidt, Sideways and 2011’s awards-soaked The Descendants. In fact, it feels more like a directorial debut than a seventh film.
That is to say that there’s an intimate, charming naiveté and a lo-fi, oddly 1990s vibe that informs everything from the black and white photography to the subject matter itself. It asks us to forgive the occasional cornball line, overly sentimental moment, plot-convenient coincidence, amateurish performer and gag that doesn’t quite work – and we do.
In fact, its faults only add to the overall charm of a film that is ultimately so well-meaning, it’s impossible to bear it any ill-will. It also helps that there are laughs a-plenty. They’re the best kind of laughs too – those derived from a keen observation of unexpected, absurdly truthful moments. They are the kind that make us laugh because we recognise them in our own lives.
Initially fearing Forte’s chirpy, cherry pie acting style was going to be so irritating that it would derail my enjoyment of the film, I soon found myself warming to the logic in his portrayal of the son, David. He’s a quietly tragic character: passed 40, he’s working in an unfulfilling job and his girlfriend recently left him. To add to his woes, things couldn’t be going better for his brother who has a wife, kids and has just been promoted to lead news anchor on state television. His chirpy state is all that stands between him and the abyss.
Presumably it is the same abyss that commands his father’s distant stare for nearly the entire running time. Dern’s permanently tortured, impenetrable expression haunts the film. A stubborn yet fragile old man, we understand implicitly why his son wants to assist in his hair-brained, cross-country quest.
Not only does he see himself in his father’s plight, but by helping Woody regain some sense of purpose, David is ultimately doing the same thing for himself. It’s a journey they both need, equally.
Resembling most closely David Lynch’s Straight Story (1999) with its gentle narrative engine and wistful tone, Nebraska will be noted for 77-year-old Bruce Dern’s incredible return to a leading role (despite a raft of character roles, he’s best remembered as the lead in the 1972 ecologically-aware sci-fi classic Silent Running), which justifiably earned him the best actor gong at last year’s Cannes.
Dern mines his character’s ‘man-of-few-words’ trait for all the comedy it’s worth, and the result is a surprisingly touching, dignified film that will probably prove as enduring as its themes.
Playing Grand & Dagmar