I, along with many others, have harbored a deep irrational and unfair grudge against Bruce Dern ever since his role in “The Cowyboys” back in the 1970s where he became forever known as the man who shot John Wayne in the back. Other men had done the same deed over the years, but thanks in part to Dern’s memorable lanky facial features and his signature drawl, he was the one who would be immortalized for the deed. Now finally, at age 77, it appears Dern has finally found “redemption” from his past cinematic sin with what is assuredly the best performance of his career in ‘Nebraska’.
This is a movie I watched in black and white but remember in color. It is a great piece of evidence in the argument for why black and white movies are still a great tool in any movie maker’s repertoire, and why they are still very much relevant. The black and white atmosphere here added to the reality and credibility of the movie. It took it from an affable dramatic comedy, to a stark drama (with comedic elements) where the focus is kept squarely where it belongs, the characters themselves. Also, you quickly forget it is in black and white as you’re watching it, which is kind of the point I suppose.
‘Nebraska’ follows the story of the old, likable loser Woody Grant, (Bruce Dern) who receives one of those junk mail sweepstake notices telling him he’s got a million dollars waiting for him, along with the price of several magazine subscriptions, all of which he can have as soon as he sends the letter back to the home office in Lincoln Nebraska. Woody, a senile and overly trusting fellow, believes he has won. According to his son, David (Will Forte) Woody does not have Alzheimer’s here. He just has the bad habit of believing the things that people tell him. Woody seems to go in and out of coherence during the movie so it’s never really clear how much he actually believes versus how much he just wants to believe. After Woody attempts to walk from Montana to Nebraska twice on his own, his son decides, for a change of scenery anyway, to humor the old man’s delusions and take him on a drive to collect his imagined winnings. Along the way they get sidetracked in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town where Woody grew up, and it is there that the heart of the movie takes place.
In Hawthorne they spend some time with Woody’s extended family, mostly his brother Ray and his folk. All the men in the Grant family are people of very few words. They remind me of my own father and his brothers, who are from the same generation. They’re the kind of people who would never answer a question with a sentence when a simple grunt would suffice. Most of the family is portrayed as warm and affable, albeit somewhat aloof. Then there is the matter of Woody’s nephews Cole and Bart (Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll) who, both well into their thirties at least, still live at home and whose interests include driving fast, talking slow, and making fun of anyone that takes two days to drive from Montana to Nebraska. My wife was way ahead of me in spotting Cole as indeed being “Buzz” from the first two ‘Home Alone’ movies. They both come across as real life Mike Judge caricatures from Beavis and Butthead who generally (albeit ineptly) terrorize the proceedings.
When the people of Hawthorne here that Woody has come into some money (not being privy to all the facts) he becomes a local celebrity. David, not wanting to crush his dad’s spirits, decides to let his dad have a few days of being a fantasy millionaire before they go to Lincoln and straighten this whole mess out.
Nebraska is a similar movie in theme to another Alexander Payne road movie “About Schmidt” which starred the aging Jack Nicholson in one of his better latter day roles and featured Kathy Bates in one of the best roles of her career. ‘Nebraska’, while not as dark a movie as ‘About Schmidt’ is just as good and features performances as good or better from Bruce Dern and June Squibb. June Squibb plays Dern’s long suffering wife and she provides the film with most of its big laughs. Her character goes back and forth, making you despise her one second for her non-stop verbal abuse of her husband, and then having you champion her later when she rallies to his defense when the family buzzards start circling. She is just as much a wonder in this role as Dern, and a true hoot to watch.
Payne does a remarkable directing job on this movie, but first and foremost he must be given credit for an even better job in the casting department. It could not have been an easy fight getting Bruce Dern for this role, as the studios reportedly wanted a big time name like Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, or Jack Nicholson, all tremendous actors, but aside from Duvall , I don’t believe they would have been right for the part of Woody Grant. In a 2012 interview, Payne outlined what exactly he was looking for in this leading role.
“The lead is a cranky Midwestern guy, He goes in and out of dementia and cajoles his son to drive him from his home in Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, because he thinks he’s won a sweepstakes there. I need a Henry Fonda when he was a crotchety old [son of a gun]. But he’s not available, so I’m looking elsewhere. I always liked the austerity of Fonda’s acting, so that’s what I’m going for.”
Bruce Dern hits that description right on the button. Fonda was always one of the most likable actors of his generation, which helped him to perform an about face and portray one of the best Western villains of all time in “Once Upon a Time in the West”, a movie which opens with him murdering an entire prairie family in cold blood. Bruce Dern does a similar turn around here, as he has made a career of playing great smarmy villains, but here puts in a stunning performance as a sympathetic, although still very much crotchety and cantankerous, character that pulls on your heartstrings the entire movie.
Dern is not the only great bit of casting in this movie. If you would have told me before seeing this that someone chose Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte (no disrespect intended) over Bryan Cranston I would have said they were out of their minds. However, for the role of Dern’s youngest son, Forte is perfect. David Grant is the conscience of this movie, and Forte plays him with the kind of rural likability and decency that would even make Jimmy Stewart go “Aww shucks”. Dern’s older son is played by Breaking Bad alumni, “Better Call Saul” Bob Odenkirk. Forte and Odenkirk both share a background of being comedic actors, and SNL alumni, and while they both play completely straight characters here, I had no trouble believing this was the kind of offspring that would be produced from a union with Bruce Dern and the feisty June Squibb. Forte and Odenkirk also have great chemistry together in their scenes, especially the ones in which they team up midway in the movie to take back an air compressor that was stolen from their father some forty years prior.
Forte perfectly embodies the everyman kind of vibe that you would expect from a mild mannered working class guy from Montana, at least the sort of working class that works in a Stereo store instead of a lumber yard that is. He never misses a beat in this movie either as he takes abuse from his elderly parents as well as assorted other relatives. It is his decision early on in the movie to humor his dad’s request to take him to Lincoln to cash in his million dollar “prize” that sets up everything that follows, so it is very important that we both like and trust his character for this story to not come off as cruel and exploitative instead of sincere and heartwarming.
This is Bruce Dern’s movie though. He is in command every second he is on screen. Woody is a character who is ornery and thorny on the outside, but on the inside he is an overly trusting and deeply nice person who has been taken advantage of his entire life. This, along with some bad experiences in Korea, led him to a heavy drinking problem. Dern navigates the complexities of Woody Grant flawlessly. He is perfectly surly in scenes such as the one where he is drinking in a bar with his son and the subject of whether or not he planned on having children is brought up. “I liked to screw and your mother’s catholic. You figure it out.” And then he turns around and shows us this guarded, but deeply damaged side. One of the best scenes like that is the one where Woody and his two sons explore the remnants of his childhood home where his little brother passed away as a small child, and stopping by his parent’s room he laments “I’d get whipped if they found me in here. I guess nobody’s gonna whip me now.” Dern does an amazing job of emoting without speaking. His character’s two stock answers to nearly any question in the movie is “Don’t know” or “Doesn’t Matter”… but underneath those grizzled eyes you can see that it does indeed matter a great deal. This is not just the best role of Dern’s career, it’s one of the best performances in any movie in quite some time. This is landmark acting.
Nebraska gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.