The Art of Graying Nebraska


Ten minutes into the 110-minute film NEBRASKA I thought I would find it depressing, but the gentle evolution of the featured characters transformed me into a believer. In film. In acting. In Alexander Payne. In Bruce Dern. And in June Squib, a name that does not role off the tongue but should, considering she’s quite seasoned on stage and screen (large and small) and seems totally natural delivering Midwestern, no holds barred, zingers.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte, however, have nuanced roles, as in tinge, hint, degree, touch, trace, note and fine distinction (precisely what the Word thesaurus says). Like a lotta men, they don’t talk much about their feelings. You have to watch their faces carefully. Woody, a stubborn old coot who thinks he has won a magazine sweepstakes and will not be stopped from going to Lincoln to pick up his million dollars, and his unexceptional son David, who is powerless to keep him safe at home in Billings, follow an inevitable path to disappointment. Their mouth- twitches have to say it all as they roll along in a stubby Subaru, on miles and miles and miles of Interstate highway cutting through grain fields.

David fortunately does have a heart and is in his dad’s corner as soon as Woody gets a gash on his head, then loses his false teeth. Their unexpected stopover with relatives provides a glimpse of small town rural life that some of us would like to forget. Woody wanted to forget, too, but once he is in Hawthorne, where there still are a few people who remember who he was, and who believe his story, he begins to twitch a little more. This is where the nuclear family matters.

The film is shot in black and white as if to emphasize a bleak landscape where houses are patched and agricultural hardware litters and looms over weedy backyards. I was reminded of WPA photography. Hawthorne’s tattered main street appears as odd on the rolling prairie as a stage set but exists in Buffalo, Wyoming. The actors seem like they might actually belong there, even the very large cousins with very small brains and Woody’s adorable one-time girlfriend who was no match for Kate (Squib) probably because she was just too sweet.

Wikipedia says, “Alexander Payne was given Bob Nelson’s screenplay by producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, asking him to recommend a director. He asked to direct it himself…”  I can understand why. Though he is only slightly over 50, he’s “a Nebraska guy” and his Greek parents ran a small town restaurant there. Payne got away, and wound up at Stanford and UCLA Film School. He’s known for preferring to have control of his projects (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), and for using real people in minor roles. He says that he liked this script’s austerity and humor (see interviews on YouTube).

Remarkably, or perhaps notably, and maybe even obviously, most of the cast matched the ages of the audience, I’d say around 75. In the past decade, the number of films made for mature adults has been growing, and after NEBRASKA we might see an avalanche. I have written here before on a related topic, the length of films and acknowledgment that senior audiences need frequent bathroom breaks. Well, wear your paper undies to this one. It’s worth it.



Karen Dahood


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