Sunday, December 15, 2013

Nebraska (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


The American auteur Alexander Payne (The Descendants) sounds a lively, off-kilter note in "Nebraska", a black and white study of an aged man in search for satisfaction, embodied in a million dollar certificate.

Bruce Dern stars as Woody, a grizzled and grumbling blue collar retiree who seems pained by the very air he breathes. Nevertheless, he shuffles out every morning with the idea that a lottery prize is waiting for him in Lincoln Nebraska. Woody schemes and connives. Most days, he escapes and walks on foot, in a painstaking attempt to reach the supposed cash office.

His face is pale, tense and as stubborn as Popeye without his spinach. Indeed in his haggard and salty appearance, Woody most closely resembles an old sea captain. Some will be reminded of Nick Nolte perhaps, but Dern has a softness and a passivity at times, that Nolte often lacks.

Woody usually takes flight when his dominant wife Katie (June Squibb)  has her back turned which isn't a very frequent occurrence.

The comic Will Forte from SNL gives an excellent serious performance as Woody's innocuous yet caring son who appears to just go with the flow of life. He likes his father but is often turned to a puddle of soft jelly by his domineering septuagenarian mother.

Payne has much to draw from. The crisp imagery of bent black trees parallel Woody's own tilted frame. The flat fields of Nebraska and the wrinkled munchkin-like faces of many Hawthorne residents recall the photography of Walker Evans. And the pedestrian yet innerly madcap characters recall something of Jim Jarmusch, especially given the   black and white cinematography. But although "Nebraska" may echo other films and several art forms, Payne's theme of the struggling embattled senior, up against expectations and running out of time are uniquely his own.

The veteran character actor Stacy Keach gives a fine, precise performance as a whale-like "frienemy" who sings bad karaoke but intimidates in an acute and scary manner in his desire for payback.

But it is June Squibb who roars loudest with the most animation and practically carries away the whole state, setting and film as the unapologetically profane matriarch whose vituperations are laugh out funny. Her role of Katie, despite its invective invention, is not without solitude or sweetness.

"Nebraska," although it is zany and deadpan, unfolds like a spool of life. The scenes of a soporific tv room, paired with half remembered smiles, greedily seeking and wanting, are instantly familiar. Alexander Payne has weaved a picaresque American portrait that turns a barren country into something eccentric and vibrant.

Like an O. Henry story, the ending is as sneaky as it is sentimental.

Write Ian at

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