Monday, December 16, 2013

The old man down the road

The old man walks as though his torso belongs to someone else. Body and mind seem tenuously coordinated at best. Sheer will power—another term for stubbornness—goads him as he traverses the shoulder of the road leading out of Billings, Montana. His destination is Lincoln, Nebraska, which even a cursory glance at a map will tell you is a hell of a ways. His velocity makes the lawn mower in The Straight Story seem like a concord in comparison. But that film’s old-timer had his wits about him, whereas Woody (Bruce Dern) appears touched by dementia, its creeping inwardness a blessing, perhaps, for a man who never said much and habitually took refuge in alcohol. Dementia is the token explanation for Woody’s insistence on traveling to Nebraska to collect what he claims is an enormous windfall but for the rest of us is obviously a Publisher’s Clearing House-type scam. Only later in Nebraska does Woody’s son, David (Will Forte), suggest that dad “just needs something to live for.” 

David needs something too, to escape the deadening routine of selling stereos and from the heartache stemming from the recent failure of a romantic relationship. So, in spite of the inherent absurdity of Woody’s itinerary, David decides to drive Woody to Lincoln, though they wind up spending most of their time in the fictional town of Hawthorne, where Woody grew up. Many who remain there still remember Woody from the old days. The farmhouse in which Woody spent his childhood still stands—if barely. Nebraska is really David’s journey. It’s about a son wondering who his father is or was, about how time seems to render our parents fundamentally unknowable. It’s too late for David to get close to Woody in any meaningful sense, but it isn’t too late for him to learn something about Woody that might help him map a route through his own life.

Alexander Payne’s sixth film is the first on which he takes no writing credit. It is also his most fully realized since abandoning satire (i.e.: Election) for somewhat less prickly studies in characters and regions (About Schmidt). Phadon Papamichael’s ashen, monochromatic cinematography mirrors both the vintage and fogginess of Woody; it also reflects new, welcome gradations of nuance in Payne’s characters and offers nod to certain traditions in American landscape photography. (Nebraska’s stark highways and turnpikes also echo the image on the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name.) Imagery, character complexity, rhythms and regionalism: in so many ways Payne’s latest strikes me as a vast improvement from its widely acclaimed predecessor, The Descendants, which in many respects settled for the corniest take on its Hawaiian setting (the musical score, most annoyingly), and featured the rare George Clooney performance that feels at once oddly leaden and false, most notably in the overly sombre way the star reads the prosaic opening voice-over. (Payne says that no matter how his films end up he always thinks he’s making a comedy—I think he forgot to mention this to Clooney, in so many other films a deft comic actor.) A road movie without the excesses of local colour that often clog the genre, Nebraska’s story is simple, its themes straightforward and its ambitions modest, but the degree to which Payne, working from a script by Bob Nelson, realizes these ambitions make the film richly rewarding both as an aesthetic and emotional experience. 

Which is where I should finally address the enigmatic heart of the film. After cutting his teeth in Roger Corman exploitation counterculture flicks in the ’60s, Dern became one of those marginal legends of the New Hollywood of the ’70s—the very definition of “character actor” for an entire generation. Substantial roles in quality films were rare, as was recognition, though Dern did get an Oscar nomination for his role as a Vietnam veteran in Coming Home. So much of his work is memorable for being singularly hysterical (that’s a compliment—no one does high-pitched flip-outs like Dern). After a career of going off the rails it’s thus that much more fascinating and strangely moving to see Dern reach this autumnal triumph, playing a role that demands he remain remote, apart from the others, not so much confused as slowly dissolving into the film’s aluminium siding, wood panelling and flat vistas. Forte, an actor known for comic roles, perfectly compliments Dern with patience, approachability and kindness—his David is an easy-going guy who needs some way to shatter his own passivity. What David discovers by being forced to confront the mystery of his father is something of a value that one usually needs half a lifetime to come to terms with. Thankfully, Nebraska is made with such heart and craft we needn’t wait that long to know that something very special has transpired. The feeling is right there, waiting, as we reach the end of this particular road. 

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