The View From Here

In praise of Bruce Dern in Nebraska

In praise of Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Michael Bonner

Looking back on the ways in which Hollywood had changed since he started out as an actor, Bruce Dern told Uncut in 2004, “Where are the people? Where are the stories? That’s what the ‘70s was, and each of us who survived, those are the kind of movies we always wanted to make. And always will try and make. And whenever there’s one out there like that – look for us to be involved in it. I’m still trying to be a better actor. I’m still hoping I’m growing. Y’know, there’s no retirement. Shit, if you’re 80 play 80!”

In many respects, Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, fulfils Dern’s requirements. It gives a plum role to Dern – now in his 77th year – as Woody Grant, a grizzled, faintly bewildered retiree who undertakes an 850 mile road trip from his hometown of Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska on the dubious promise of a million dollar payout. Superficially, at least, the plot resembles another one of Payne’s films, About Schmidt. But Nebraska revives the spirit of Dern’s beloved Seventies’ cinema, too, starting with the vintage Paramount logo Payne dusts down for the start of the film. Meanwhile, you might spot the way the story riffs on Paul Mazursky’s Harry And Tonto – another loose-limbed yarn concerning a septuagenarian on a road trip – or perhaps find similarities to Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in Payne’s use of monochrome small town photography.

The small town is a critical factor here, I think. Payne is an unusual figure among contemporary film directors in that he still references his non-California origins. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Payne seems to studiously avoid large metropolitan settings in his films, instead championing recognisably regional environments – in particular his home state. Events in both Election and About Schmidt take place in the suburbs of Omaha; Sideways steers a gentle course round the sleepy vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley; The Descendents, meanwhile, abandons mainland America altogether in favour of the Hawaiian islands.

As Woody – in the company of his long-suffering younger son David (SNL’s Will Forte, in a rare straight role) – make their way through Wyoming and South Dakota towards Nebraska, Payne’s film becomes a quiet requiem to the disadvantaged American heartland; half-empty diners, rusting farm machinery and boarded-up stores suggesting that a great tranche of the country is sinking into a dark economic crisis. On a more intimate level, there is also a question mark over Woody’s mental acuity: is his befuddlement simply a side effect of having nothing constructive to do with his retirement (“He needs something to live for,” says his wife), or is there something more serious going on: is he drifting towards Alzheimer’s? Certainly, David’s decision to travel with his father is motivated as much by wanting to spend what you suspect he believes is his last significant chunk of ‘quality time’ with his father as it is to do with wanting to make sure he doesn’t come to any harm.

But for all this, Nebraska is often a very funny film. The scenes involving a family reunion the Grant’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska are especially funny, as news of Woody’s supposed windfall turns him into a local celebrity, giving rise to expectations of payback for past debts, whether real or otherwise. The chief claimant – and, I suppose, the film’s de facto bad guy – is Woody’s bull-necked former business partner, Ed Pegram, played brilliantly by Stacy Keach. Props in particular go to June Squibb (84), who plays Kathy, Woody’s quarrelsome, foul-mouthed wife. A visit to the Hawthorne cemetery, where she gleefully rattles through the causes of death of various family members and other local residents is hilarious. She gets a terrific, although admittedly unexpected, punchline out of the word “cancer”.

And then there’s Dern, triumphant as Woody, with his shock of white hair, flannel shirt and jeans, stumbling down the road, doing his best work in 40 years. As long-suppressed details about his early life – his time in Korea, alcoholism, former girlfriends – emerge, we begin to see more clearly what has shaped this largely egotistical and cantankerous old man. These are people going nowhere, in need of something to hang on to.

Nebraska opens in the UK on Friday, December 6

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner.

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