At the Movies: Nebraska

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I have received comments and emails from many of you who are having various kinds of trouble either getting subscription notices, or making comments to the blog. I have no idea what is going on, but I have forwarded your messages to the computer guru who might be able to fix the problems. There is no computer program so good that it can’t be fouled up ten ways to Sunday by improving it. In the meantime, as we try to get this fixed, I  appreciate your patience. Here is another review.



The quest is one of the tried-and-true themes that has driven works of fiction probably for as long as man has been making up stories to entertain his fellow man. Think of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the only reason I don’t go back even further is because I haven’t gotten around to reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the only work of fiction I know of that predates Homer. The quest is a theme that allows for almost infinite variations: a golden fleece, a girl’s heart, a new country, a monster that must be slain… The permutations go on and on, though of course the goal is unimportant and the quest is all.

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern sets out on a misguided quest for a million dollar prize he thinks he’s won. Old, semi-crippled and semi-senile, no matter how often his son or the police or both track him down and bring him home, he turns again and again to the east, like a bug resolutely set on a direction as mysterious to us as our interference doubtless is to the bug. His determination is as epic as the quest theme itself, and finally, in an effort to bring the affair to an end, his son takes time off from work to drive this irritable, alcoholic, indefatigable old man from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where, Dern believes, his million dollar prize is waiting for him.

So, a two-hander where one of the people is a taciturn, monosyllabic alcoholic sliding into senility, and the other isn’t much more verbal himself. That should be a riveting laugh riot.

Actually, it is not only very funny and very moving, but also very compelling. Writer Bob Nelson hails from Yankton, South Dakota and knows his world inside out. It just so happens I’ve done a lot of hunting in both South Dakota and Nebraska (I do love those great rolling open spaces where the horizon tempts you on and on, ever farther, even as it fades constantly in front of you) and I was caught up in the almost documentary feel with which director Alexander Payne imbues his movie, catching the look, the feel, the sounds, even the texture of that lovely open land and the worn, weather-beaten small towns. He chose to shoot in black and white, which adds to the documentary feel and gives the movie the same kind of vivid, starkly beautiful look we associate with Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photographs. But more than that: to continue the documentary analogy, the performances in Nebraska manage to achieve so completely the illusion of reality that you find yourself wondering if these are actors, or if Payne simply found actual residents of that small-town world and pulled performances out of them. Bruce Dern is obviously Bruce Dern, but even there I found myself wondering if I was actually watching a great performance, or if maybe he was getting a little gaga with age. When you get caught up in the illusion of reality to that degree, you know you’re watching a hell of movie.

A quick example of Payne’s deft touch: father and son stop to spend the night in the small town where Dern grew up, and there is a scene outside, at night, that takes place while in the background we hear the distant monotonous barking of a dog. That sound effect has nothing to do with the scene being played or with the larger action of the movie, but it anchors us in the reality of small town, semi-rural life.

Bruce Dern is Bruce Dern, and another national treasure who makes an appearance is the great Stacy Keach, but who are these other actors? Will Forte as the patient, decent son driving his father east, Bob Odenkirk as the other son who follows with their mother—Mother, what a mother!—played to acid-tongued perfection by June Squibb, the various family members and distant relations and former neighbors in the small town where they stop, all of these are the real and familiar individuals we might meet in any small prairie town. It’s an old truism that whenever an artist creates a real and true and believable individual, he ends up creating an archetype. With that in mind, Nelson, Payne, and cast have captured an essence of the America most people fly over, and they have done it with gentle good humor.

Along the way, and especially in the small town stop-over, we and Will Forte learn much about Bruce Dern and the past that shaped him, which is to say we learn much about ourselves. There is no million dollar prize, of course, but that’s the beauty of all quests: sometimes the prize we find, while not the one we set out for or even thought we wanted, is far more precious than gold.

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