B&W ‘Nebraska’ a film of many shad­ings

The Washington Times Daily - - Auto -

The black-and-white of Alexan­der Payne’s mas­ter­ful film “Nebraska” seems to de­pict a for­got­ten, by­gone ver­sion of the Up­per Mid­west, with end­less prairies, open skies and dy­ing towns. Only the oc­ca­sional glance at a con­tem­po­rary ob­ject, like a dig­i­tal cable re­mote con­trol or a flat-screen TV, gives the game away. The ab­sence of color adds a touch of dig­nity to a story of a man who is cling­ing to one last, fool­ish hope to re­claim his honor as a man and as a fa­ther.

We meet Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a re­tired auto me­chanic who may be ap­proach­ing se­nil­ity, walk­ing pur­pose­fully along the side of a high­way, bent into the bit­ter wind. He’s try­ing to get from his home in Billings, Mont. to Lin­coln, Neb. to col­lect a $1 mil­lion sweep­stakes prize he be­lieves he’s won. Of course, it’s a phony sales pitch, but Woody re­fuses to lis­ten. His younger son David (Will Forte), an elec­tron­ics sales­man at a big box store who’s re­cently split from his girl­friend, de­cides to drive him to Lin­coln.

What be­gins as an at­tempt by David to re­con­nect with his fa­ther turns into a his­toric odyssey, tak­ing the Grant clan back to their roots in the tiny town of Hawthorne, Neb., where old hurts and obli­ga­tions are un­earthed, ri­val­ries rekin­dled and the ori­gins of Woody’s abid­ing sense of in­dif­fer­ence blended with re­gret are dis­cov­ered.

Mr. Payne has an af­fec­tion for marginal­ized men that makes “Nebraska” more of a bit­ter­sweet com­edy than a de­press­ing dive into a heart­land town in de­cline. Yet it’s no ac­ci­dent that the name Woody Grant is an in­ver­sion of Grant Wood, the painter of the iconic “Amer­i­can Gothic.” Like the sub­jects of the fa­mous paint­ing, Woody is tight-lipped, in­clined to­ward pride, but strug­gling. The few words Woody does share man­age to con­vey his con­tempt for his chil­dren or a fee­ble but ever-present de­sire to be liked and ad­mired by men his own age.

The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the hard­ship and de­pop­u­la­tion that af­flicts small towns like Hawthorne. Most of the busi­nesses on main street are boarded up, few of the fam­i­lies are farm­ing their own land, and the life of the town seems to center on a cou­ple of tav­erns. When news of Woody’s good for­tune reaches the lo­cals, he’s cheered as a hero — a part Woody is ea­ger to play. His rel­a­tives and an old busi­ness part­ner, Ed Pe­gram (Stacy Keach), want to take ad­van­tage of the pre­sumed windfall to col­lect on some old debts.

Mr. Dern is mag­nif­i­cent as the brood­ing Woody, con­vey­ing sud­den mood swings with flashes of wrath al­ter­nat­ing with looks of con­fu­sion, frus­tra­tion, and pas­siv­ity. He cap­tures the phys­i­cal­ity of a man wracked by age, al­co­hol abuse and pos­si­bly de­men­tia. June Squibb is won­der­ful and funny as Woody’s wife Kate, a profane fire­cracker who acts as the un­of­fi­cial his­to­rian of the fam­ily, re­mem­ber­ing all of their con­nec­tions to the peo­ple of Hawthorne, and ev­ery slight and in­sult they de­liv­ered or en­dured.

Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Phe­don Pa­pamichael photographs the Nebraska land­scape and sky with art­ful­ness and care. Th­ese lin­ger­ing shots serve as a kind of con­nec­tive tis­sue for the story, stitch­ing to­gether dis­parate scenes as the story slowly de­vel­ops. The set dressers also are worth men­tion­ing for the at­ten­tion given to the small de­tails of the in­te­ri­ors of homes, es­pe­cially the aban­doned farm­house of Woody’s youth. Th­ese pic­turesque skies and haunt­ing de­tails im­bue “Nebraska” with a sense of the eter­nal that lends sig­nif­i­cance to Woody’s quest, bind­ing it up with the strug­gles of his fam­ily, his town and his part of the coun­try. TI­TLE: CRED­ITS: RAT­ING: RUN­NING TIME:

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