Film Reviews

NEBRASKA

By • Feb 14th, 2014 •

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A snap shot on a forgotten, dusty old postcard found on a rack, when 5 and 10’s existed along Main Street, is of the skeletal remains of a family, bare-boned and worn thin to the last remaining threads of family fabric. The black and white picture creates a bleak and blighted existence within the Plains States’ barren landscape gloominess where dinosaurs once roamed and laid down to die and the indigenous people vanished, serving as a metaphor for the ugly truth of American dystopia.
Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA likewise reaffirms the shattered idealisms of small town America found in Sinclair Lewis’ early twentieth century novel, Main Street.

The Promised Land is Lincoln, Nebraska, as Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out on foot from Billings, Montana, with undeterred determination regardless of logistical complexities hampered by physical ailments and the onset of dementia. Visually aloof and at a slowed pace, each journey has ended primarily at its start. Regarded with contempt by one son who favors placing dear ol’ dad in a home, the other son, David (Will Forte), has reserved a bit of compassion for the old man. The bickering and badgering from the hen that rules the roost is sourced by her lament for her husband’s lifelong idleness and time spent with a bottle, topped off by his folly that he holds a mail contest prize of $1 million. David attempts to facilitate his father’s sweepstakes dream by driving him to claim it in Nebraska.

Along the roadmap of their fractured relationship, with bumps and bruises en route, the pair stops at Woody’s childhood town to reconnect with family and friends where tension, surprise, horrible truths, and battles are encountered.

This sad family portrait commemorating decades old resentment regurgitates the seething underbelly of the family unit. Woody, the patriarch, failed his family, having lived his life on pause and mute, and now suffering from a fogged memory while wondering in a stupor resembling Nick Nolte’s mug shot, would be perfectly cast in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST. His wife Kate (June Squibb) is one tough cookie, with a squawk box whose ripostes are full of bite, has been and still is, the one with the upper hand. David’s life is seemingly in neutral, somewhat paralleling his father’s diffidence, having recently broken-up with his girlfriend, and with a dead end sales job. Finally, Ross is the brother with drive at the cusp of success as a news anchor in Billings. Then there is the ensemble of extended family and townsfolk. To put it in perspective, the women probably think that Fashion Week is the seasonal new arrivals at Kmart and the men’s social graces peek at football and beer.

Acting as the “good son,” David’s offer to drive his father is an attempt to reconnect a relationship that was always strained, and to finally end the elder’s treacherous escapes to the marketing office to redeem a prize that isn’t there. Here is role reversal implemented by the passage of time and the onslaught of mental decline. The road trip is an evenly metered tempo with dialogue rests, panoramic landscapes, peppered with periods of musical accompaniment to enhance the mood.

Hawthorne, Nebraska is an expose of a mundane people living an almost stagnant existence in a simplistic town suffering mental rot and decay. Still, there are a few lovely souls who may be described as ‘salt of the earth’ types. Main Street is home to local watering holes frequented by those who regard beer guzzling as sustenance and not alcoholism. Dinner and entertainment is simple fare making Karaoke king on Saturday nights.

Three inhabitants to loathe are Woody’s nephews and a former business partner. The two brothers are a modern day Tweedledum and Tweedledee, vegetating at home sponging while unemployed, with Saturday road crew assignments decreed by the court to one of the big dummies. Even in this case, where one goes the other is sure to follow. As their mother clarifies, there is a difference between rape and sexual assault. The biggest snake is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) who allegedly stole Woody’s air compressor decades ago and attempts to strong-arm a piece of what he believes to be Woody’s newfound fortune.

Worthy of Oscar’s nod is June Squibb’s portrayal of spry Kate. From the moment she rolls into town to join Woody for a long over-due family gathering, she verbally assaults him. Yet, this scrappy little bolt of thunder is fiercely ready to spar with anyone who dares poke jibes and speak untruths about her husband. While fending off the wolves, she trumpets aloud that her husband was such a good man to a fault because he was unable to turn down a favor. Kate’s delight is that she speaks matter-of-factly and is both rueful and glib. The scene at the cemetery paying her form of respect to the dead is executed so well and is such a riot. (She needs to be paired with Don Rickles as a husband and wife team.) David is uncomfortably subjected to family and town history, delivered with adult-rated content by his stout, white-haired mother.

The story resolves itself, allowing the extended family to scatter and to remind us all that it is best to see family only at funerals. The sweetest victory is reserved for Woody, driving through Hawthorne on his way back to Billings from Lincoln. As is stated in the film, “There ain’t much to do.” Woody just gave the town something to gossip about for a long, long time. All that’s left to do is have June Squibb get all glitzed up and head over to the Oscar ceremony and pick up her golden statue.

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One Response »

  1. Nice job Franco. Nebraska is a winner if tough to take most of the time. You’re right about June Squibb. I think she’ll be up there at the big dance. Real nice opening paragraph of old postcards, native Americans and dinosaurs in the mix. There were a few sweet people along the way in this movie, especially someone who still pines for Woody and would have been a better choice for him but he didn’t notice her I’m sure. Lots of Woodies out there.

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