By Joan Ellis
From start to finish, “Nebraska” is in the hands of very clever filmmakers.
That credit goes to director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson who set the tone for the film in Scene 1 and never once inject a false note to undermine it. Their vision is small town isolation in rural Nebraska in contemporary time, as announced by the presence of TV and an old Subaru, but otherwise it is anytime rural Midwest USA.
The people? Excepting the leads, the men are uniformly bloated and sedentary, all sharing the unspoken contentment of spending their lives sitting single file on the couch watching TV or at the local bar on Hawthorne’s main street. Until the Subaru road trippers intrude, nothing troubles these guys who puncture long silences with comments of two or three words. Their wives, on the other hand, are sprightly and ready to chat with anyone who interrupts their daily routine of cooking and serving food to their inanimate husbands.
Hawthorne, you see, was also once the home of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). Woody has received in the mail one of those notices that reads, “You have won a million dollars” followed by a string of impossible ifs in small print. When David (Will Forte) realizes his shuffling old dad is determined to walk to Nebraska to collect his winnings, he puts him in the Subaru and heads east from Montana with a long stop in Woody’s hometown.
Director Payne pulls his camera back slowly in order to give us the gift of seeing this enormous piece of rural Midwestern landscape that is such a significant symbol of the country’s breadth. The dot in the middle of that endless, wonderful emptiness is Hawthorne. From the moment Woody and David pull in, the audience that has been laughing in quiet appreciation reacts with unbridled pleasure at what unfolds.
Watch especially for the scene of David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) retrieving their father’s compressor from the barn of a much-disliked neighbor (Stacy Keach).
Bruce Dern and Will Forte build a marvelous picture of a son trying to understand his father, and they are helped immeasurably by the garrulous women around them. June Squibb’s Kate Grant, Woody’s long suffering wife, is an outspoken woman who unleashes sharp epithets loaded with graphic description. Angela McEwan is wise and funny as Woody’s sensible old girlfriend, and Mary Louise Wilson captures Aunt Martha.
The real stars of this show are the barren landscape and the towns that bisect its desolation. This is exactly what made these people who they are. They have lived their lives without distraction from the outside world.
Make no mistake: We are laughing not at them but in affectionate pleasure at the culture and circumstance that produced them. We are left simply with the wonderful question of how this writer and director came together to paint such a flawless portrait. The final scene is sublime.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.