I've now made my second excursion to the cinema this year to see the one movie of the awards season that has really piqued my interest. If you've watched any of the award shows so far, you may have noticed a grey and tousled-hair elderly chap seated amongst all the glitterati. That's good old Bruce Dern who has been Oscar-nominated for best actor in the above film. The flick has five other nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), and Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael). While it would not surprise me in the least if none of the above are honoured, passed over for more popular or worthy entertainments, all of the above are well worth discussing and the film is more than well worth viewing. In fact I recommend it highly.
Dern has been around since the early 60s, starting in television series, and moving on to some well-known features in the late 60s and 70s. Generally few recognised him as much of an actor and he was largely slotted into a variety of criminal, sociopathic, and psychopathic roles in which he excelled. He reached the epitome of creepy evil in the largely-forgotten but still memorable "Tattoo" (1981). Everyone assumed that he must be the archetypal 'baddie' since he is the only actor to have killed the All-American John Wayne on screen in "Cowboys" (1972). Although Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in "Coming Home" (1978) and a fine Tom Buchanan in the l974 "Great Gatsby", his career just toddled along. He worked constantly to date with plenty of small roles in recent movies and television movies, but very little that you might remember. That's until Payne cast him as the lead in "Nebraska".
He plays Woody Grant, a nobody, worn down by life, loss, booze, and the early stages of dementia. When he receives a marketing ploy letter advising him that he has won a million dollars (if his numbers match and he buys various magazine subscriptions), he is determined to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to claim his 'winnings' in Omaha, Nebraska. No longer able to drive he tries to set out on foot along the dusty highway, until the police return him home. His caustic wife (Squibb) thinks he's a nutter and keeps threatening to put him in a home, but his younger son (Will Forte), who has never connected with his Dad, volunteers to drive him to Omaha in a last ditch attempt to win his father's affection. En route they plan to spend the weekend with relatives in Woody's home town in Northern Nebraska and Squibb arrives by bus to join them. Over a few beers Woody casually mentions to the old-timers that he has 'won' a million and soon everyone in town is celebrating his good fortune -- and quite a few of them want a piece of the non-existent bucks.
Squibb whom I really did not know previously steals every scene in which she appears, even though it is still Dern's movie overall. She played the very small part of Jack Nicholson's recently deceased wife in another of Payne's road movies "About Schmidt", but here her forthright manner and no-nonsense approach to life shine brightly. There is a scene in the local cemetery where she has a few choice words for each of the departed that is among the more memorable movie moments of recent times. While not himself nominated special praise should also go to Forte, best known as a comic starting off with his success on Saturday Night Live. There is nothing remotely funny about his role here, except possibly when he and his brother (Bob Odenkirk) try to retrieve a 'stolen' compressor from the wrong farm. He plays it straight, doing his best to protect his deluded Dad, and the movie's denouement arrives as a heart-warming surprise. That comes after he 'decks' local Stacy Keach, Woody's former business partner and compressor-thief, who demanded most to profit from Woody's would-be wealth (audience cheers!).
Perhaps I should have mentioned sooner that the film is in black and white. Papamichael's camera work is nothing short of magnificent, capturing the bleak and desolate landscape of middle-America with its soulless and deadening roads and towns. It just wouldn't have worked in colour. Payne has made only a few movies but all of them interesting, the first of which ironically starred Dern's daughter Laura (Citizen Ruth in 1996). In this movie with its spot-on casting, he assembles a cross-section of monosyllabic and occasionally imbecilic characters who seem to personify the drab and largely uninteresting story of Woody's world. Some shots, like all of his male relatives gathered around the ballgame on the goggle box, would translate beautifully into remarkable stills of a world that modern technology has bypassed and time has forgotten. It's a grey, small-minded, and generally hopeless life.
I last saw Dern seated in the stalls at the recently televised BAFTAs and no, he and the film didn't win any awards. I expect the same scenario at next week's Oscars, but the movie truly deserves every one of its nominations and more.