Monday, December 23, 2013

Nebraska - The Film

…is an elegy for small-town America, as lovingly rendered as possible, I suppose, given director Alexander Payne’s warts-and-all approach and choice of black-and-white film stock. But it must be pointed out that we’re dealing here with “small” small towns, of the type that lost their vitality several generations ago, when railroads gave way to highways, local creameries folded in the face of refrigerated trucking, and weekend trips to Wal-Mart became the rural norm.

The action begins in a medium-sized city—Billings, Montana—and it ends in a small big-city—Lincoln, Nebraska (the Athens of the Midwest)—but it mostly takes place in Hawthorn, Nebraska, which has a main street three blocks long and seems to be populated largely by farmers, retired farmers, bartenders, and their families. The fact that Hawthorn still has a local newspaper is nothing short of a miracle.

Nebraska is a slow, slightly arty movie, reminiscent at times of such films as  King’s of the Road (Wim Wenders) or The Last Picture Show. More often director Alexander Payne seems to be channeling the spirit of Frederico Fellini, as, for example, when he plays with lights and shadows to chisel the features on a row of almost-grotesque faces at a bar or sitting around a farmhouse table, or lounging in a big, silent group in front of a TV set.

The rolling, wide-open spaces of Montana and Wyoming, and the somewhat flatter terrain of Northern Nebraska, also get a good deal of loving attention.

The entire script, single-spaced, would probably fit on a few sheets of typing paper.

The first twenty minutes of Nebraska seem slightly contrived, as if Payne had spent so much time getting the lighting right that he forgot to maintain the rhythms of the dialog. (The same could be said of the opening scenes of Sideways, the first half of About Schmitt, and almost the entirety of The Descendants, especially when George Clooney is on screen.) 

But the film finds its groove soon enough, as an old, more-than-slightly demented man and his son set out on a two-day road trip to Lincoln to cash in the man’s “winning” ticket in the Publishers Sweepstakes. (These things actually happen. My great–aunt, an otherwise astute woman of eighty-five, could not be disabused of the delusion that she had won that same contest. Fortunately she had no desire to drive from Crookston to Lincoln to find out.)

But the meat of the tale involves various interactions that take place in the town where the old man grew up. Most of Woody Grant’s high school friends have died or moved, though there are plenty left to provide his son David with a far more vivid picture of his father’s early years, teen romances, war experience, family life, early drinking habits, and adult behavior than he otherwise would have gotten. The impressions and recollections don’t always match up, of course, which gives the film a vaguely Rashamon-esque flavor.

Comic touches also abound, though the overriding atmosphere remains one of bewilderment, frustration, and loss.

Bruce Dern won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his portrayal of Woody Grant, and Stacy Keach brings an element of braggadocio and menace to his rendering of Grant’s old business partner. Will Forte is less convincing as Woody’s son, though the character itself is bland and slightly confused to begin with, and he grows on you. Watching him, I was reminded of Tim Holt in Treasure of Sierra Madre, trying to hold his own in the company of Bogart and Walter Huston.

Perhaps the moral center of the film lies in the heart of Peg Nagy (played by Angela McEwan), the owner of the local newspaper who dated Woody in high school but lost him to David’s mother Kate. “I knew I didn’t have a chance,” she tells David in her sweet, soft voice, thinking back maybe fifty years with a wistful smile, “I wouldn’t let him run the bases with me.”
The graveyard and the old farm-stead, now long-abandoned; the divisions between Catholics and Lutherans; the juvenile delinquency. Scenes from Nebraska stick in memory like a dream or an ancestral memory. (Lots of my relatives come from Nebraska; many still live there.) With Nebraska Payne has crafted a low-key classic, elevating a fairly dismal swatch of American life to the level of art by exposing the all-too-human impulses that keep it moving…and sometimes ennoble it.

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