Bruce Dern gives a brave and unfaltering performance in “Nebraska,” the new movie by Alexander Payne. Dern already has won the best-actor award at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, and now his portrayal of an old man sinking into the confusion of senile dementia is being touted for an Oscar. This possibility has a sentimental attraction. The 77-year-old actor has been so memorable in so many movies over the past 50 years (he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the 1978 film “Coming Home”) that we can’t help wanting to see him score a career-capping triumph. And maybe he will.
But Dern’s character in this movie — a crusty old coot, named Woody Grant, who has lost all interest in human interaction — is a very limited figure. Bumbling around with the splay-gaited walk of a man carefully scrunching insects underfoot, Woody is beaten-down and largely monosyllabic. He’s the fulcrum on which the story rests, but most of what we learn about him is laid out by subsidiary characters. This is an interesting narrative strategy, and Dern holds the screen with his total commitment; but the story is mostly advanced by the other actors, who are allowed more room to inject color and energy into the proceedings.
The real revelation in the picture, I think, is Will Forte, who plays Woody’s son David — a young man who, in his own way, is as confused and aimless as his father. Stuck in a dead-end job (he’s an audio salesman in an electronics store) and recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend, David knows his life is going nowhere, but he has no idea what to do about it. Forte, best-known for his comedy work on “Saturday Night Live” and in the broad-as-a-barn-door “MacGruber,” plays it completely straight here, and his warm, thoughtful performance strongly suggests a new career direction.
We meet Woody wandering along a highway in Billings, Mont., where he lives. Woody wanders a lot in his dwindling years, and David is often called upon to reel him back in. This time, though, Woody won’t be held in check. He has received a letter from a direct marketing outfit announcing that he has won $1 million — followed by a heavily qualifying “if,” which Woody ignores. He’s determined to make the 800-mile trip to Lincoln, Neb., where the company is headquartered, to claim his windfall. David knows the letter is a scam, and he’s reluctant to facilitate his father’s delusion. And Woody’s nasty, irascible wife, Kate (June Squibb of “About Schmidt”), and his eldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), are convinced it’s time to park Woody in an old-age home. But David eventually realizes that his dad finally has found a purpose in his drab life, so he agrees to be Woody’s driver. And off they go.
Dern never stoops to easy pathos here. His Woody is a surly, unpleasant man, and the actor never tries to soft-sell him. En route to Nebraska, David makes a short detour to give Woody a look at Mount Rushmore. Squinting up at the giant rock faces, Woody is sourly unimpressed. “Doesn’t look like it’s finished,” he mutters. “Looks like somebody got bored doin’ it.”
A little farther along, David decides to make another stop, at Woody’s childhood hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., to visit his even-older brother (Rance Howard). A big family gathering has been planned, and David hopes to use the interlude to persuade Woody to call off their pointless quest.
Payne has shot the film in widescreen black and white, a format that inevitably recalls such great ’70s movies as “Badlands” and “The Last Picture Show.” Here, it’s ideal in conveying the chilly winter monotony of life in a small town such as (the fictitious) Hawthorne, with its empty streets and oppressive air of nothing-ever-happening. The director, a Nebraska native himself, strikes some memorable notes; a scene in which aged members of the extended Grant family are shown crammed into a small living room and staring mutely at a blaring television has a particular kind of claustrophobic horror.
It is in Hawthorne that we begin to learn more about Woody’s past — his long-ago loves, his business setbacks (it turns out he was once a kind and generous man, a soft touch for needy friends). And when Woody unwisely announces that he is now a millionaire (which, of course, he’s not), we get an unsettling depiction of the avarice of desperate people with long-deferred dreams. A menacing character named Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) — Woody’s onetime partner in a car repair garage — suddenly remembers that Woody owes him money; now he wants it paid back, with heavy interest. And Woody’s two fat-slob nephews (Kevin Kunkel and Devin Ratray, wonderfully moronic) also begin to circle, with violence in mind.
The story proceeds along a string of carefully arranged details. Nothing showy happens; the movie is resolute in maintaining its small-bore focus on Woody and David and the low-key maneuverings of the rural characters who cluster around them. It’s a rewarding film, especially in the performances of Dern and Forte; but in the impressive resume of Alexander Payne — the man who wrote “Sideways” and directed “The Descendants” — “Nebraska” is a relatively, and perhaps intentionally, minor work.