I'll give you an example.
There is the country tune called "Wagon Wheel" seemingly made famous by former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, yet it is a tune that has its origin within the Americana musical framework served up by Old Crow Medicine Show.
"Does that really matter?," you might ask.
Both versions have their places within contemporary music with Rucker's being a more market friendly and mass consumption version while Old Crow Medicine Show's original being a more nuanced and expressive version that likely captures more accurately the real meaning behind the song's music and lyrics.
Alexander Payne's Nebraska is an Americana film, a more nuanced and expressive cinematic experience than one expects from Hollywood and a film that more accurately and insightfully captures the intimate and universal experience of being a human being than a good majority of the films that dare call themselves a family drama or a psychological thriller or any other such paint-by-numbers label.
Nebraska is a film that lingers.
It sometimes says much within the span of a few seconds but, then again, sometimes it says nothing but stillness and wondering and contemplating.
Nebraska is the story of a man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who is nearing the end of his life and he knows it. He is likely in the early-to-mid stages of dementia, but he remembers just enough to know that he has feelings and regrets and unresolved issues and even a dream or two still lingering somewhere within his psyche'. He is married to Kate (June Squibb), though why he is married to Kate has long ago left his consciousness. He has two children, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the former who remains his frequent rescuer and the latter who has long since stopped trying to figure him out and moved on with life.
Woody has a story, but perhaps it's more true that Woody simply really wants to have a story rather than the empty spaces that seem to feel his slowly decreasing consciousness. Woody wants something. Woody wants to matter. Woody seemingly wants some symbol that his existence on Earth has resulted in more than the empty space it seems to fill.
Woody has a belief. Woody clutches a letter like many letters that you and I have seen, a letter that proclaims him the winner of $1,000,000 IF, but Woody doesn't see the "if." Woody can't see the "if," because he desperately needs there to not be an "if" in what has become one of his few remaining symbols of hope in what is left of his life.
Woody isn't; so much brought to life by Bruce Dern as he is truly and fully lived in. Dern discovers the little places within Woody that are still filled with life, but rather than bring them out he takes us to them. Director Alexander Payne could have played Woody's constant wanderings for nothing but laughs, but he wisely knows that there's so much more within them. They are funny, but they are also sad and contemplative and grief-filled and desperate. In Dern's able hands and feet, Woody's wanderings are among the most soulful journeys you will witness on screen this year.
I'm not sure if Bruce Dern gives the performance of a lifetime, but I am sure that he gives such a wondrous and quietly understated performance that anything less than an Oscar nomination would be a travesty. Dern takes a character and makes a man who is flesh and blood, heart and soul. Dern doesn't make you laugh and cry, but instead makes you experience.
It is quiet. It is wonderful.
As Kate, June Squibb is less quiet. She is the manic to Woody's melancholy, a woman who "won" her husband many years before but who has now grown tired of his alcohol-fueled dementia and his pointless determination to somehow reach Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his million dollar prize that he is sure awaits. Squibb, whom you may remember as Jack Nicholson's wife in About Schmidt, will most assuredly pick up an Oscar nomination here because Hollywood is fond of recognizing those who've lingered in the shadows for years when they finally receive their moment to shine and do so. Squibb's Kate is so believable that it doesn't even feel like acting as much as it feels like my mom or your mom or some other mom we know being not so quietly resigned to a life that hasn't turned out anything like what it started out to be.
The film's real revelation may be Will Forte, though his dialogue often has a lilting rhythm to it that may feel deceptively intentional. Forte's David is clearly wounded by his father, yet he desperately clings to a desire to connect with him. He is fresh out of a relationship with a woman not unlike his mother, though it is perhaps apparent that this woman has recognized the truth and decided not to settle. David is showing signs of being his father, though they are signs he sees and desperately wants to see disappear. Forte, primarily known as a funnyman prior to this film, nicely captures the lingering effects of a very "real" childhood likely filled with one neglectful parent and one for whom he has never been able to measure up. Forte's David is the good son, but only because he hasn't gone away.
On the other hand, Bob Odenkirk's Ross has disappeared inside his modest level of success as the anchor for a second-rate local news station where the placid world in which he grew up is perfectly manifest. Given the least glamorous of the family roles, Odenkirk embodies nicely a man whose only goal in life seems to be simply leaving everything in the past really in the past.
Woody does finally take his journey thanks to David's willingness to try to understand what's really going on inside Woody. The journey, in the film's more vibrant and occasionally humorous scenes, travels through Woody's old stomping grounds of fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska where time stands still and people seemingly stay as they've always been. When word gets out, without the details, of Woody's impending fortunes, Woody seemingly glimpses the true meaningful life that he seems to so desperately seek including growing in importance in the eyes of Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), the small pond's big fish with whom he used to be in business and with whom he still clearly has unresolved issues.
Filmed in pristine black-and-white by D.P. Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska doesn't have the marketability of Payne's Clooney-led The Descendants and is thematically more like an Americana cousin to his Sideways. It is a film that requires the gifts of stillness and patience and contemplation and a willingness to immerse onself within the fabrice of life and smalltown culture. Bob Nelson's screenplay is deceptively simple yet quietly sublime.
With Nebraska, Alexander Payne has crafted a film that doesn't feel like a film. Nebraska is a film, but it's a film that exudes life and regret and grief and fading dreams and quiet desperation. It's a film that doesn't make you laugh or cry, but makes you feel its characters and their stories in their laughter and tears and solemn moments where it seems like nothingness surrounds.
Nebraska is, quite simply, film as life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic