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Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 12:01 am

Payne and Dern find modest nobility in Nebraska

Bruce Dern as Woody Grant and Will Forte as David Grant in Nebraska.


Director Alexander Payne knows that it’s hard to find fulfillment in what Hollywood pejoratively refers to as the “flyover states” – that vast part of the country that stretches from east to west from Missouri to Utah and as far north as Montana and on south to Arizona – where people live lives of quiet desperation, longing to be anywhere else but the soul-sucking void they’ve found themselves in. His Election examines the life of a well-regarded Social Studies teacher who dares to interfere with a high school student council election, which leads to his destruction, while About Schmidt concerns itself with a recently retired insurance executive who finds his golden years to be empty and unfulfilling.

Born and raised in Omaha, where both these films take place, Payne knows of what he speaks – that the people who live in this area are modest and unassuming, that they expect little out of life but to be rewarded for a job well done and that the simple gifts this region offers up may ultimately be far too disappointing for those who live there. His latest, Nebraska concerns a man – senior citizen Woody Grant (a never better Bruce Dern) – who, tired of battling his own demons and dealing with regret, has retreated within himself, having found solace in the delusional world he lives in where the possibility of success still exists.

As the film opens, we see Woody walking up an exit ramp headed out of Billings, Mont., toward the highway where he intends to walk to Lincoln, Neb. He’s gotten a mailing that he thinks has informed him he’s won $1,000,000 and he’s set out to claim it, saying “I’m not trusting the mail with a million dollars.” No amount of reasoning can dissuade Woody, who’s lost his driver’s license and whose wife, Kate (a delightful June Squibb), refuses to drive him on this fool’s errand. Reluctantly, their youngest son, David (a surprising Will Forte), agrees to take his father on this trip. He needs an escape from his ex-girlfriend, as well as his tiny apartment and dead-end job.

On their journey, David comes to see Woody in a different light. He learns of plans his father once had that never came to fruition, meets friends and relatives who took advantage of him and begins to understand why he often sought solace in drinking. All of this comes crashing home when they visit the old man’s childhood home which, despite having become a falling down wreck of a place, still holds memories powerful enough to pierce the haze Woody’s in.

Payne, along with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, underscore the story’s melancholy tone by filming in black and white, casting a pall over the people – nearly draining them of life – yet retaining a beauty. It emphasizes the strength that’s allowed them to endure. Dern personifies this notion, giving an insular performance – meditative and still – in which we’re left to wonder if Woody has lost his mind or simply gone within himself. Though he’s a tragic figure, the actor is able to find the nobility in the character, giving us a man who’s endured a lifetime of defeats, yet has earned the right to live the rest of his days as he sees fit, even if it is through the eyes of a man who hopes without reason.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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