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Senior citizen's road trip to dignity


Nebraska (M). Director: Alexander Payne. Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan. 115 minutes

Alexander Payne's 2002 comedy About Schmidt rendered with poignancy and truth the latter-life crisis of its elderly hero. The cantankerous Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, finds himself suddenly alone following his retirement and the death of his sweet but overbearing wife, Helen (Squibb). During a road trip from his home in Omaha to the wedding of his daughter in Denver, and through his touchingly frank correspondence with a Tanzanian sponsor child, Warren stares his past, his regrets and his loneliness in the face. Writer-director Payne and star Nicholson imbue Walter's twilight odyssey with the utmost authenticity and dignity.

Payne's latest outing as director, Nebraska, could be an unofficial sequel. It too concerns a road trip taken by a cranky and, in this case, alcoholic senior citizen (Dern). Like Warren, Woody Grant has neglected of his now-adult children; the film follows the efforts of younger son David (Forte) to bridge the emotional estrangement. Woody seems to be in the early stages of dementia, which would explain his certainty that a sweepstakes flyer stating he has won $1 million is authentic. While David's brother Ross (Odenkirk) would prefer to put the old man in a home, David agrees to honour Woody's wish to cross state lines to claim his fictitious winnings.

Their journey detours and stalls at Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody stoically reconnects with numerous long-distant brothers, their wives and children. News of Woody's return and apparent fiscal good fortune spreads and causes a sensation among the sleepy and sometimes sinister townsfolk. David's encounters with numerous figures from Woody's past, including sneering rival Ed (Keach) and former flame Peg (McEwan), illuminate the man his father was, and is. If About Schmidt was about an elderly man coming to know himself late in life, Nebraska is about a younger man coming to know an unknowable father before it's too late.

The sturdiest signpost to Nebraska's thematic expansion of Schmidt comes in the form of Squibb, whose Kate Grant is a more abrasive version of the milder Helen Schmidt. Kate appears initially to be simply a wearying presence in Woody's life, who nags and belittles him for his early attempts to trek to Nebraska. But there is no doubt that her tetchiness reflects both long-suffering and genuine concern for her ill-mannered husband. Kate comes into her own during a comedic scene in which she berates dead ancestors in a Hawthorne graveyard, and a dramatic one where she defends her husband against the circling hyenas of his extended family.

Payne's treatment of Nebraska's small themes — of family, of ageing with dignity, of the dimensions of small-town life that are parodied here, humorously but not always kindly — expands them to near-mythic proportions. Road movies are timeless and epic by nature, and Nebraska is delivered with an elegiac tone and beautiful black-and-white cinematography that makes it even more so.

It's the performances though, particularly of the older cast members, that ensure even the film's laugh-out-loud comedic setpieces ache with bittersweetness. Squibb and Dern have both deservedly received Oscar nods for their performances; Dern especially is superb, as a man who has much to regret, yet is much misunderstood, and whose half-dim squint suggests he is too aware of his own dwindling physical and mental agency. Ultimately he understands that the small gifts of dignity afforded to him by David throughout are not small at all.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Nebraska, Alexander Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach



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Existing comments

I just watched the trailer and think this would definitely be a movie worth the admission price. To me, it's very American but for some reason it reminded me of the Australian classic "Wake in Fright" and Virgil's lines: "The way downward is easy from Avernus./Black Dis's door stands open night and day./But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,/There is the trouble, there is the toil."

Pam | 26 February 2014  

This is a beautifully written review

Patricia R | 27 February 2014  

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