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Review: ‘Nebraska’

Showcase For Actor Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern stars as an aging man on a mission to claim a million dollar prize...

Credit: Paramount Vantage

Above: Bruce Dern stars as an aging man on a mission to claim a million dollar prize in "Nebraska."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando review "Nebraska."


Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and ”The Hobbit 2" might be getting most of the media attention this holiday movie season, but little films like Alexander Payne's “Nebraska” (opening Nov. 27 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) refuse to be eclipsed by these Hollywood behemoths.

During a career spanning more than half a century, Bruce Dern was more often the co-star than the leading man, but that’s only because Hollywood lacked imagination. Dern found his best roles in the '70s ("King of Marvin Gardens," "Drive, He Said," "Silent Running" and "The Driver") when his raw, intense naturalism fit the rebellious, independent spirit of American cinema. With "Nebraska," Dern gets a chance to strut his stuff as Woody, an aging man on a mission to claim his million-dollar prize.

Woody keeps leaving the house and determinedly walking. When picked up by the cops or by his son, his only answer is, "I’m going to Lincoln if it’s the last thing I do. I don’t care what you people think." But his son, David (Will Forte) thinks his dad is crazy and tries to convince him that the letter informing him that he is a winner simply is a scam to sell magazine subscriptions. But Woody insists on going, noting, "I’m running out of time."

David eventually decides to drive his father from Montana to Nebraska. It’s a road trip that begins in frustration and anger but eventually leads to unexpected revelations. Take this exchange between father and son:

DAVID: How did you and mom end up getting married?

WOODY: She wanted to.

DAVID: You didn’t?

WOODY: I figured, "what the hell?"

DAVID: You ever sorry you married her?

WOODY: All the time. Could’ve been worse.

DAVID: Well you must have been in love. At least at first.

WOODY: It never came up.

Woody isn't exactly bitter or angry about his life. He doesn’t really complain about it, but then he seems to have learned that keeping quiet might be the better choice. But he does want a little dignity and some small sense of satisfaction before he dies.

Dern is superb as Woody. Woody isn't a man who seems to have made a lot of choices in his life. Instead, he kind of lets things happen to him that he simply doesn't resist. Dern walks a fine line with his performance; always suggesting that Woody might be less crazy than we think. Perhaps his most deeply affecting moments are those of silence when his eyes tell us everything with an eloquence that goes beyond words.

Forte makes a nice foil for Dern. He starts the journey just trying to humor what he thinks is an old man's crazy delusions, but as he spends more time with his father, he gains insights and develops compassion for him and the life he ended up living.

Stacy Keach also delivers a fine performance and unexpected menace as a greedy friend. And director Alexander Payne seems to have pegged June Squibb as the perfect actress to play wives who give their husbands grief. She was the wife in Payne's "About Schmidt" and now plays Woody's wife. But to her credit, she does find moments to humanize her character so she's not merely the nagging spouse.

Payne has a penchant for road movies having made "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" prior to "Nebraska. "Nebraska" takes a little of the midlife crisis of "About Schmidt" and mixes it with the dysfunctional, multigenerational family drama of "The Descendants." He never lets the tone get too dark despite the underlying regret that colors the film. It's a beautifully realized film, and the choice of shooting in stark black and white with economically depressed landscapes as a backdrop calls to mind "Last Picture Show," another great example of '70s New Wave filmmaking.

"Nebraska" (rated R for some language) is a refreshingly clear-eyed and unpretentious film amidst bigger budgeted Hollywood movies bloated with self-importance as the awards season kicks up. I don't place much value on the Oscars, but I hope Dern gets some industry recognition for his stellar work here. He deserves it and he deserves to get more leading roles.

Watch the trailer for "Nebraska."

Companion viewing: "Silent Running," "King of Marvin Gardens," "The Driver" and "Drive, He Said."

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