I couldn't help thinking after watching Alexander Payne's new film "Nebraska" (10) of how different its picture of America is from the one that is peddled to us (and to people around the world) in most American films and television. In that more typical Hollywood depiction, everyone (except the odd villain or comic relief) is improbably good-looking, their houses are improbably well-appointed and clean, their conversations are improbably expressive, and their problems are readily diagnosed and handily solved. Humorous films about less sparkly people are not common and usually display an overtly self-conscious, mocking tone (think "Napoleon Dynamite").
"Nebraska" is the antithesis of those films--and, it strikes me, presents an admirably truthful, if rueful, depiction of a significant segment of American culture. It is shot in expansive black and white in an America of open, bleak spaces (Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska), and feels so deeply sunk into those spaces that its setting rises to the level of a character, as in a Coen brothers' film. Its characters look like actual people you might meet--their clothes and skin are weathered and frayed, and you can see the toll of work and disappointment and resolution. They also talk like people you might meet--which is to say that often what is said isn't particularly insightful or even interesting and what's really going on might as easily be found by listening for what isn't said.
What I loved most is that director Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson don't condescend to these folks. Small-mindedness and even meanness are often in evidence, and the film is rich with humor but it doesn't make fun. Most everyone is more or less doing what they can, and you can see the remnants of a culture built on the dreams of a post-World War II economy that has not quite panned out; indeed, much of it has disintegrated. This film sinks into the bleakness, invites you to look long and listen deeply, and finds beauty and humanity there.
Much of the credit goes to Bruce Dern's career-capping performance as Woody, a taciturn old goat who clearly hasn't shown an interest in much of anything except alcohol and old grievances for as long as anyone can remember. Woody has sprung a fearsome determination to travel from his home in Billings, Mont. to Lincoln, Neb. to collect the million dollars promised to him by a junk mail scam, even if it means he has to walk there. His wife Kate (who has clearly been nursing her exasperation with him for several decades) calls their sons to complain and to retrieve Woody when he wanders off toward Lincoln. One senses she wants them to hear her dub him a "dumb cluck" who, if he wanted to be a millionaire, "should have thought about that years ago and worked for it." His son David attempts, more gently, to reason with him, but Woody is having none of it. "I don't care what you people think," he tells David. "I'm runnin' out of time."
Dern won, and earned, the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance, and he perfectly captures the sense of a man who hasn't bothered to pursue much of anything for a long while, but somehow fumbles for that capacity near the end of his life. Though his choice of aims is misdirected, there is a point buried in there somewhere. We learn that (though not right away) because David--apparently hearing his father's cantankerous query, "What else you got goin' on?"--decides he can take the time to drive the old man to Lincoln. It's the first step in a journey of fighting past his father's meanness and history of neglect to really listen to him. And it left me wondering what would happen if more of us found the will to do the same for our elders.
The journey takes them to the central Nebraska town where Woody grew up, and soon Kate (the hilarious and hard-bitten June Squibb) and David's brother Ross (perfectly cast Bob Odenkirk) join them for a reunion of sorts with relatives and acquaintances who none of them have seen since David was small. Neither the place nor the people look like they've evolved much in the 30 years since they left, and David stays attentive for clues about his dad that would otherwise never rise to the surface. He meets an old sweetheart of Woody's, and learns of a possible affair, and of Woody's service in the Korean War. Did his dad ever love his mom? Did they plan to have kids? Woody's answers to such questions don't vary much from "I don't know" and "it doesn't matter." But there are glimmers of aspiration and pursuit of which David had not suspected his father was capable.One of the most poignant scenes involves a visit the four of them take to the house where Woody grew up. He doesn't see the point in going, but its effect on him, and on David, is evident, if appropriately understated. Grunted remarks from Woody convey volumes about old wounds, and director Payne knows when to linger on empty spaces that still show the discards of the life they once contained. That family trip--full of sarcastic remarks from Kate and a misguided attempt by the brothers to right an old wrong for their dad--conveys a lived-in sense of them as a family, too.
This film benefits from Mark Orton's melancholy soundtrack, featuring guitars, fiddle, accordion, harmonica, and a haunting and whimsical trumpet/horn duet; it's the best soundtrack I've heard in awhile and conveys deeply the film's spirit of reverie. And Payne knows the importance of casting a movie with people you really believe; the townspeople, including an old girlfriend of Woody's and Stacy Keach as his menacing former business partner, utterly convince. SNL alum Will Forte as David deserves special mention, too; his resolution and muted exasperation balanced by sincerity and watchfulness give us the perfect vantage point for taking the film's soulful journey.
The film deserves the critical acclaim it has received, but much of what has been written about it attributes to the film a cynicism I did not perceive. Real people do lose momentum, or neglect to aspire to as much as they might. They can be comically, or tragically, spiteful and slow to change. But the truth of most of them is worth searching for. And this journey--bleak but strangely hopeful--is worth taking.