by Philip Price
Naturally, the most involving stories are those we usually relate to best. I personally love a good comedy but the consequences most characters face in those films are unrealistic. I can enjoy a horror flick without actually becoming wrapped up in the mythology of what the film justifies its actions with or convincing myself it is real and an actual possibility in this world. The same goes with science fiction and over-the-top action movies. Sure, I love “Star Wars” and have become enamored with the barrage of comic book films we’re hit with every year, but I like to think of myself as a diverse viewer in the fact that while I can enjoy even the mainstream genre films that big studios deem worthy of their big budgets it is perfectly acceptable to understand why the smaller, indie movies that typically end up on critics end of year best-lists are just as enticing and deserve to be taken on their own terms for the point in which they were made and what ideas they were looking to explore and fulfill (just as those bigger budget ones). All of that is to say that when something like “Nebraska” comes along it is easy to take it for granted, but in reality this is a film that captures all of the complexities of life in as simple a package as our day to day lives make it seem most of the time. As told by director Alexander Payne it was clear that this very human story would have a very personal tone to its proceedings, but “Nebraska” is surprisingly insightful not only for the dynamics between the family members and the core relationship between the father and son that examines big questions in small ways, but because it is, like its main character, so matter of fact about these big ideas. There is nothing overly exceptional about the film, but that too is due to the fact it dials down its philosophical and nostalgic questions that delve into the choices we make and how they affect our happiness, how we don't always think them through in the moment and how they may, in the long run, determine more than just the quality of life but our satisfaction with it. Payne has always had a knack for exploring human pain and contemporary American life with a touch of dark humor and he almost provides that in excess here as the crux of the plot is a senior citizen buying into one of those million dollar marketing ploys, but this silly gimmick only serves as the entrance point to a family many will feel all too familiar with and be happy to be re-assured we are not alone in each of our hectic/tiring/uplifting/pathetic/routine lives.
The potently framed first shot that is held still and directs our attention right at its center introduces us to Bruce Dern's Woodrow T. Grant as he hikes along the side of a busy highway, smoke from the factories billowing in the back and cars passing without a second thought. A cop pulls over to the side of the road and catches up with Woody, as he is so lovingly referred to throughout, and asks where he's going and where he's come from. Woody doesn't so much as respond as he does point in opposite directions and in that small opening moment we get the frankness with which Woody approaches each and every situation and confrontation in his life. He is of course taken down to the police station where his son David (Will Forte) comes to pick him up. David is fond of his father, that is made clear, but he still doesn't know what to do or how to act around him and it’s slightly clear that he never has. When David returns his father to his parent’s home we are introduced to the hoot of a woman that is June Squibb as his mother, Kate. David also has a brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) who is currently in the middle of achieving his career goals as he's getting a chance to man the anchor desk while a colleague is out sick. Ross and Kate are ready to put Woody in a home. Woody escapes whenever he sees an opportunity and to a certain extent David understands his father’s eagerness to get away from the consistent unpleasantness of living with his mother. Kate is brutally honest and opinionated and has no reservations about sharing what she thinks with anyone willing to listen. When Woody is caught one too many times trying to break free towards Lincoln, Nebraska where the office is located to claim his supposed winnings David decides to indulge his father in his little fantasy and the two embark on a road trip much to the disdain of Kate. While it would be easy to say that from here craziness ensues and the father and son form a lasting bond it all develops into much more than that as David, who always took his dad for a drunken wreck, discovers more about his past and what made him the man he became through the small town he was raised in and the people around him that shaped him as much as the nature of the world did.
While much of the joy “Nebraska” brings to its audience is in the subtle framing of its big themes what is more obvious are the great performances littered throughout that allow us to be enticed by this film that has very little in the way of surface content. Beginning with Bruce Dern who, though I recognize him from films like “Monster” or even last year’s “Django Unchained,” is an actor I'm not overly familiar with and so to have any preconception of what I was going to be in for here was impossible. What Dern does though is use the shell of an old, disappointed curmudgeon who leans on the drink as a way to soothe the harsh realities of his life as well as put him in a state he feels fit to blame others for his shortcomings. It is a fine line to walk where if you don't do enough the chance is greater the point trying to be made will fail while if trying to do too much and overact there will cease to be any credibility. One must understand the magic of how to imply and Dern seems a master at it here as that aforementioned shell would hint at nothing more than a grumpy old man who desires little more than to drink the rest of what little life he has left away. By the support around him, mainly David, and through the dialed down tone Woody takes when pulling back into actual conversation rather than the quick exchanges he shares with most we are given a glimpse of the actual mindset that he operates within. Sure, there are early signs of dementia (though he really only expects to believe what people tell him) and his body is more than beginning to fail him, through it all of this Dern is able to convey the inherent reserved frankness that has always seemed to define Woody. On the other side of things is Squibb who again, upon first glance, is only serving one aspect of the storytelling function and that is to provide the comic relief. While she does this in spades Payne keeps the reality of these characters in check and more than allows the humanity in Squibb's Kate to come through, especially in later scenes. While all of this is well and good I have to admit the real draw to “Nebraska” for me was the dramatic turn of Will Forte. Forte was a “Saturday Night Live” player who was always energetic and more than committed which left no doubt in my mind he could pull it off, but his singular style gave me worry. Forte is more than convincing though as he portrays what was likely his scariest character to date in that it was someone closer to who he actually is. It is more than difficult to play your true self when a camera is on you, but Forte has a knack for naturalism, a knack I hope he continues to explore.
As I said earlier, the performances are clearly the centerpiece of this small film, but in retrospect and as I get further away from actually viewing it and in contemplating why it continues to stay with me it comes back to the dynamics between these characters and how they reflect the themes Payne is looking to make his audience discuss and evaluate for themselves. It is a slick piece of filmmaking that makes it seem like much less is going on that what is actually being examined and as much as Payne is a director that likes his audience to relate to the people on screen (as he continually tells tales of the common Midwesterner) he also likes to reach towards the bottom and see what the root cause for this kind of tepid lifestyle is; where the days seem to come and go and simply making it through each of them is a satisfying enough reason to believe something better is on the horizon even if the probability of anything substantial occurring is zero to none. The consistent question that popped up in my mind as I watched the events of “Nebraska” unfold though was what made this a compelling family drama? What was it Payne saw in Bob Nelson's debut screenplay that made him want to invest the time and thought it would take to turn this into something more than what was on the page, but what we learned about the characters as the movie unfolded that would bring about a deeper meaning to the relationships between each and why this lifestyle that so many seem to share the ideals and goals of made it a worthy challenge? I was unsure of his reasoning until about halfway through the film when David and Woody stop in the small town of Hawthorne to see Woody's brother and reconnect with those he grew up around. They bring up the past in waves while the film is able to delicately reaffirm the reasoning Woody pushes on with life when so many are ready to give up on him. As much as he is beginning to let go he still wants to leave an impression on those he'll leave behind. “Nebraska” isn't necessarily a great film, but more an enjoyable one that I feel I will only grow more fond of with repeat viewings. It is nothing that will break down any barriers or has turned out to be truly affecting in its execution, but it is a slyly smart little gem of a film that, like its characters, will grow on you the more you get to know them despite the initial response of feeling rather indifferent.