How pared down does a film get before it becomes, well, not enough? I don’t have that answer (although I must admit my CU film studies days of ‘all-Stan-Brakhage-experimental-films’ come to mind) and there IS Jim Jarmusch, but it was running through my mind throughout “Nebraska” and, gratefully did NOT reach that ephemeral line in the sand. I am struck by just how little there is in this film which, at this point in cinematic evolution, tragically comprises the essence of far too many films. It is perhaps precisely what is not in “Nebraska” which makes it so beautiful, memorable and endearing.
Our protagonist (who is actually a champion antagonist) Woody, exists in a space both external and internal of total bleakness and crippling ennui. Also, and apologies in advance to any Big Sky folks out there, his surroundings are so goddamn ugly and depressing you can FEEL the weight of his landscape crushing your soul. (I am sure that there are stunning places in Montana. Payne just didn’t visit them). The use of black and white film emphasizes and forces the viewer to experience NO distractions from the wreckage which is Woody’s life and environment. Believing with unwavering conviction that he has in fact won $1M from a company in – that’s right – Nebraska, he sets out on foot to claim it by Monday. Woody has been labelled by his family as “confused” which is their mid-western way of avoiding using the “A” word to describe his supposed dementia. Kind of like Voldemort. Oh shit. Sorry. The thing is though that Woody is not so much confused as he is brilliantly adaptive in his zen-like ability to tune out anything (horrific wife) and everything (his daily existence) which detracts him from his singular mission. Tuning out is his only way to survive the staggering entropy of his life (retired and with no driver’s license) and the scalding vitriol of his spouse. What I came to realize mid-way through the film is that this is a delicate and artful example of the truth that everything is contextual: Woody has the secret to life – keep moving forward – and as we are asked to accept him as the confused and difficult one, we realize that in fact he is the only sane one in contrast to the backdrop of his life. We come to rally behind his singular focus in spite of the fact that we all know it isn’t real, and on some level, so does he. It isn’t about that anymore, and thankfully his son/chaperone, played with perfect subtle exasperation by Will Forte, finally gets it before it’s too late. Yes there is peacemaking between the son and the father, and great come-uppance for Woody’s extended family and figures from his past.
Bruce Dern was always an actor whom I suspected was as creepy and unctuous in real life as he was in the majority of roles he played. I tried to console myself with the fact that Diane Ladd actually married and procreated with him and that maybe I was wrong, but I could never quite convince myself. Laura Dern seems nice though. But anyway, age has softened Dern physically and it’s great to see his hollowed scruffy cheeks and off-kilter hobbling pierced by his dagger-like commentary which is highly selective but extremely potent! There are moments of excruciating awkwardness and terror that this old age awaits each and every one of us. But the skill here – the mastery of Payne – is that we can laugh (and laugh HARD) at it all while identifying that we each have a piece of Woody and his family in and around us. I am so happy to report that this film is not just a great performance by Dern with an “ok” story wrapped around it (my feeling about “The Wrestler” for Rourke and to a certain degree “All is Lost” for Redford) but is in fact a STORY. Remember good old fashioned stories where the narrative guides us, nothing explodes and not everyone has to bleed gallons before the film’s conclusion? Well here is a story and we need more.