(US - 2013)
Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Bob Nelson. Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan. (R, 114 mins)
Bruce Dern, with his odd mannerisms and twitchy presence, is the kind of actor who only could've become a leading man in the more adventurous 1970s, the last time when the idiosyncratic, the offbeat, and the challenging were widely accepted in mainstream cinema. Dern was never cut out for the blockbuster films that took over in the 1980s. Even in his A-list heyday, he was usually called upon to play creeps and psychos, and in a rare instance when he was the hero, as in Walter Hill's THE DRIVER (1978), you still couldn't put your complete confidence in him as a good guy. Like most actors of his generation, Dern started out in TV in the early 1960s and moved into supporting roles (HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE and HANG 'EM HIGH among others) and eventually became a fixture in biker and hippie films of the late 1960s, such as THE WILD ANGELS, THE TRIP, PSYCH-OUT, THE CYCLE SAVAGES, and THE REBEL ROUSERS. Dern's career really took off in the early 1970s, when he shot John Wayne in the back in 1972's THE COWBOYS, and with the same year's sci-fi cult classic SILENT RUNNING. Dern also attracted much critical attention with a pair of collaborations with friend Jack Nicholson, who appeared with him in some of those earlier biker/hippie outings before his EASY RIDER breakthrough: 1971's DRIVE, HE SAID (directed by Nicholson) and 1972's THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS. Neither film was a commercial success, but they, along with the general momentum he had going, were enough to catapult him to stardom and leave the drive-in movies behind with prestige projects like 1974's THE GREAT GATSBY and 1978's COMING HOME, which earned a him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod (he lost to Christopher Walken in THE DEER HUNTER). To this day, Dern has never stopped working, but his time in the spotlight was short. By 1981's TATTOO, his days as a headliner were essentially over and he moved into character and ensemble parts in projects of varying quality. He could've just as easily turned up in supporting roles in films like 1990's AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and 1992's DIGGSTOWN, or in post-nuke junk like 1988's WORLD GONE WILD. In recent years, he appeared on the HBO series BIG LOVE and assorted indie dramas and horror movies, usually typecast as a standard Dern-like weirdo.
Written by Bob Nelson, NEBRASKA has a lot in common with past Payne films like ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), SIDEWAYS (2004), and THE DESCENDANTS (2009) with its road trip and family squabbling. Payne's decision to shoot NEBRASKA in black & white serves to llustrate the stark emptiness of the decrepit farm towns in this part of the country. Many of the shots achieved by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael could almost function as still photographs. Visually, it's beautiful and haunting, and the story is powerful yet simple in its execution. David is a grown man stuck in a rut who has never really understood his father. It's mentioned by a relative that the Grant boys (meaning Woody and his brothers) "don't talk much," and there's some dark humor to be found in the scenes of several of these old guys sitting around, silently watching a football game with nothing to say, until one (Rance Howard) pipes up, asking another "You still have that Chevrolet?" and the response being "Never had a Chevrolet...had a Buick back in 1979." David's never really talked to his dad and during this trip, finds that there's a lot he doesn't know about him. There's no big twist or huge revelation, but rather, it's a quiet and very perceptive little film about life, choices, regrets, unfulfilled dreams, and family dynamics that will resonate with many.