Little movie on the prairie

Little movie on the prairie

Quiet film speaks volumes

By Tim Pompey 12/20/2013

Nebraska is so low-key, you might think that director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) was trying to punk you. Really? A lead actor who can barely walk, let alone talk? A former cast member from Saturday Night Live (not named Bill Murray) in a dramatic role?

But this is no joke. Rather, it seems to be a deliberate shift by Payne away from previous film clutter toward something as bare and basic as Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). Like Springsteen’s album of the same name, Payne’s Nebraska state of mind suggests that life on the prairie survives with a lower minimum need and a much more expansive viewpoint.

Woody is just about as far gone as a human can get and still be alive. He’s breathing. He’s drinking. That’s about the high and low of it. But one thing still drives him. After receiving a notice from a publisher’s clearing house in Lincoln, Neb. informing him that he’s won a million dollars, Woody wants his dough.

So as the film opens, he’s hobbling on foot out of Billings, Mon. This is Woody. The body of a rusted old Nash. The determination of a mule. When a local sheriff’s deputy picks him up and takes him to the station, his beleaguered son David (Will Forte) comes to retrieve him.

Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), and their other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are tired of Woody. They want to put him in a retirement home for the alcoholic and feebleminded. But David, after a series of arguments with his dad, caves in and decides to drive him to Lincoln to claim his so-called prize.

On the way, Woody falls in their hotel room and requires hospitalization. While recuperating, David orchestrates a family reunion in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, Neb. — a very small town filled with people who knew the young Woody. People whom David realizes can share Woody’s back story. People who’d like to filch some of Woody’s supposed winnings.

Payne seems to be working with a paradox here. Woody is a closed book. It’s left to his family and friends to fill in the pages. It’s a risky move. How can one bring to life a character if it’s left to someone else to speak for him?

It works because of Bruce Dern. Using his body, his face and an occasional growl and mumble, he totters and slouches in a way that lets you know he’s still kicking. And it works because screenwriter Bob Nelson (a native South Dakotan), in an impressive big-screen debut, catches the color of small-town Nebraska in a way that’s earthy, humorous and thoughtful.

And it works because June Squibb, who uses her pipes to maximum effect, yells and cajoles her way through the film like a Midwestern tornado. Whether talking trash to Woody or to her sons or to her relatives, she is the bucking force whom Woody must ride. His doleful exhaustion is her supreme gift.

Your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of Nebraska will depend on your patience and your willingness to let this tranquil film speak for itself. No gimmicks. No special effects. Just lots of spare shots of the prairie and lingering interludes with people talking, or not talking, or laughing, or simply lounging by themselves in chairs on a lonely streets.

This is Payne’s journey away from too many crowded Hollywood mansions onto a quiet side street with withering bungalows and working-class people. Why Nebraska? I think he’s challenging himself to notice that quiet, to cut loose of distraction, and to pay attention to the unspoken. In doing so, he forces us to witness up close and personal the details of life and death and how they both sneak up on us without so much as a peep.

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