In Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Bruce Dern reveals flesh, bone, even DNA, and the kind of screen wisdom built on years of experience, good and bad. It’s a performance that may very well pit him against another sage actor of the same age come Oscar time.
At the center of Bob Nelson’s subtle, funny-sad script is Woody Grant (Dern), a disappointing and disappointed Midwestern father on a quixotic mission to redeem a dubious lottery ticket. The septuagenarian travels from Montana to the Cornhusker State despite the disapproval of his bristly wife Kate (a tartly perfect June Squibb), and with his reluctant son David at the wheel. Along the way, in dribs and drabs, switchbacks and a lost set of dentures, Woody reclaims his dignity and reaffirms the core values of America without waving a single flag.
Dern, At 77, born during the Great Depression in the same year as “All is Lost’s” rugged Robert Redford, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected president, gives the transcendent performance of a very long career that began with playing an uncredited local in Elia Kazan’s Montgomery Clift drama “Wild River.” The man has been around — and won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival last Spring for playing Woody.
It’s as if everything Dern has ever seen, every lesson he’s ever learned (or unlearned), and all the guidance of Payne, who told the actor “don’t show us anything, Bruce, let us find it,” has culminated in this performance, this comic Cornhusker Don Quixote. At his side is Forte, who has flipped the switch from comedy to drama with a still, soulful-eyed performance. And Squibb creates the signature moment of her career when Kate visits her hometown cemetery and lifts her skirt in front of a long-dead high school suitor to show she still has game.
In iconic black and white, the brilliant, empathetic Payne (“Sideways”) delivers another fully realized road movie – and Oscar contender. It’s a homecoming for the Omaha native that drives deep into America’s heartland, and the heart of a single fly-over family, the Grants. The funny-sad film starts shaggy as Woody wanders along the blistered side of a Montana highway on a ridiculous odyssey to his home state, then achieves a deeply moving finish with the realization that sometimes what we want is small potatoes, not millions, a newish truck, and the look of respect, even love, in the eyes of an estranged son.
Bottom Line: Visit “Nebraska” and the great state of Alexander Payne