Before the American award season comes to full bloom, we already have a winner as far as the non-existent category of best film poster is concerned: it’s the shadowy and hardly visible silhouette of Bruce Dern’s head on the beautiful poster of the magnificent film Nebraska. With his hair uncombed and thinning and his face but a mysterious line as if posing for a paper cut, this image of Dern couldn’t be more fitting for a film about a man who is very recognizable yet full of secrets, some of them part of the dark shadows of his past.
Bruce Dern is a legendary Hollywood actor, and yet the role of Woody Grant earned him only his second Academy Award nomination at the age of 77 after Coming Home in 1978. Starting his career as early as 1960, he has starred in more than 100 films. Dern proved to be a fair loser and gave his thumbs up to Leonardo DiCaprio who beat him as best actor at the Golden Globes last week. In a very moving moment, DiCaprio -who won for The Wolf of Wall Street- said in his acceptance speech: “If any young actor wants to follow the filmography of a great artist, take a look at Bruce Dern’s work.”
Unlike say 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street that got similar Oscar buzz and media attention this year, Nebraska for me is still a “small” and subtle film. It is profound in its message and has a few surprising twists in store. It is masterfully put together without showing off and at the same time extremely entertaining to watch. Much of its appeal is thanks to the—it has to be said or even repeated—brilliance of all actors involved. I had seen Dern in other films, but when I watched Nebraska, I was convinced that he was Woody Grant, that he had always lived in a small town in Montana, that he had signs of dementia and maybe a few skeletons in the closet– yes, Dern is that good. And when we talk about acting, we talk about small gestures and looks only, about subtle facial expressions, and bits of stubbornly murmured dialogue. Dern employs these to paint a portrait of an old, yet not necessarily wise man, who has kept a lot to himself for a long time.
When, in the opening sequence, Woody Grant walks down a freeway on his way to Nebraska, he looks confused – an expression that is clarified when we learn that he is convinced he has won a million dollars. Despite the obvious fact the he, like thousands of others, was scammed by some fraudulent ad agency, his son David (SNL star Will “MacGruber” Arnett is surprisingly great and convincing in this serious role) realises that this is more about dignity than assertiveness. He gives in and plans to take his dad to Nebraska where his alleged win has to be collected, only to have an unplanned detour and discover that you hardly ever know the people you are closest to.
Without giving away too much of the story, Nebraska has some very interesting and meaningful things to say about the old generation, about the truths and lies of biographies, as well as about the changes in family and community dynamics as soon as money comes into play. Bob Nelson’s script is simply brilliant, his dialogues scarce but spot-on and his characters wonderfully multifaceted.
Personally, I am no fan of Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) at all, but Nebraska is close to perfection (the only thing that really bugs me is that a major distribution company is in charge here). The black-and-white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is sublime, as are editing and the wonderfully folky score by Mark Orton that, like the entire film, always hits the right tune between melancholia and light-footedness.
Last but not least, there is June Squibb as Kate Grant, Woody’s vigorous wife. Her performance is nothing short of fabulous. She is so energetic and so perfect in timing and wit that I almost pissed my pants a couple of times, especially during a very memorable scene at the local cementary. Squibb is 84, started acting in film 30 years after Bruce Dern (at the age of 61) and couldn’t be a more perfect counterpart to the obstinate Woody. It has been a long time that someone has written such a great part for a woman that age. Let’s hope that Bruce Dern’s shadow isn’t too big for June Squibb who steals his scene more than once. And no matter how the always-questionable juries of this award season will decide this year, I give out a made-up Discover This award for best poster design and recommend watching the movie it advertises highly.
Nebraska, USA 2013, 115 min.
director: Alexaner Payne, cinematography: Phedon Papamichael, actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, language: English, distribution: Paramount
Berlin screenings (Original with subtitles): Rollberg, Central, Moviemento
Original version: CineStar Potsdamer Platz
(After watching both the US and the German trailer and hearing June Squibb’s “that old son-of-a-bitch” turn into “der alte Bock”, I will not recommend the German version).