In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson called Bruce Dern “one of the most striking actors on the screen, but a professional haunted by failures, and a man whose own unease flowed into his querulous screen persona.” He added that Dern “can be fearsome, loathsome, or pitiful, but he is neither calm nor commanding.” In the fearless kitchen of 1970’s cinema, these perhaps unpromising qualities nevertheless brought Dern to the head table on plenty of occasions, with lead or strong supporting roles in such memorable films as Silent Running, The King of Marvin Gardens, Hitchcock’s last work Family Plot, and Coming Home (for which he got his only Oscar nomination to date). His emblematic role may be as the cop in Walter Hill’s The Driver, in which he seems to have the time of his life with outrageous dialogue, grandiosely asserting his own status as a winner, in comparison to the fools and losers around him. The performance perfectly embodies Thomson’s thesis: it’s a study in scarily self-righteous neediness, pushed too far not to detect some queasy self-diagnosis on the actor’s part.
Despite the fine quality of those movies and others, they’re clearly not on the decade’s very highest echelon, and Dern has spoken of his regret at never getting the big break he hankered for. As many of his peers marched on to richer if not necessarily artistically superior times in the 80’s and 90’s, he ran quickly out of steam, and has been in supporting parts for the best part of thirty years, seldom in very memorable films. That would have seemed to be the end of the biography to all intents and purposes, if not for Alexander Payne, who cast the actor in his new film Nebraska (although Payne’s first thought was apparently of Gene Hackman, who declined to come out of retirement). Dern won the best actor award at Cannes, and some of the recent year-end critics’ prizes as well, so another Oscar nomination seems fairly likely. Some have suggested that the role might be regarded as either a lead or a supporting role, and that Dern should angle to be placed in the latter category, on the theory that it’s an easier road to the award, but the actor refused, on the basis that this would mark him as “a whore” (still not calm, but finally commanding).
It’s hard to imagine anyway why the Academy would go for such a ploy, because he’s in the great majority of the scenes in the film, and is plainly its dominant personality. He plays Woody, in his late 70’s and no longer in great physical or mental shape, taking at face value a dumb promotional flyer telling him he’s won a million dollars, and obsessed with covering the thousand mile distance from Montana to Nebraska to collect the supposed prize. His son David (Will Forte) eventually gives in and agrees to drive him; after the old man injures himself along the way, they take a detour to his home town, where most of his surviving relatives still live. Woody’s supposed millionaire status makes him a local celebrity, while also arousing the self-interest of family and so-called friends; it sounds like he’s been a lifelong easy target for such manipulations.
Payne shot the film in pristine black and white, punctuating it with visual postcards from the journey. There’s not that much to see – highways, signs, old storefronts: depending on your affection for American heartland myths, you might view the landscape as either sparsely beautiful or else as rather wretched (a point made on a brief detour to Mount Rushmore, where Woody can only focus on the imperfections). Something similar goes for the people who populate the film, their lives defined almost entirely by what and who they happened to find in their place of birth, which isn’t much – time and again, it sounds like entire existences can be summed up in alcohol, sex and cars; no one in the film comes close to expressing an abstract idea. There’s also little sign of real romance or passion; an early scene with David’s maybe-girlfriend confirms this absence persists across the generations. It’s been suggested in the past that Payne ‘s precise observation of such types isn’t that different from patronizing them, and the same might certainly be said here, but perhaps this kind of ambiguity is by now the truest response to the contours of the so-called heartland.
The film’s careful observation of these people and places yields lots of striking moments, but it always feels like at least one part fairy tale, and this is the part that ultimately triumphs; it’s disappointing how the ending seems to throw away the economic plausibility Payne’s been so scrupulous about up to that point (in this environment, a million dollars still means a lot). He’s generally regarded now as a leading American director, but I don’t really see it. His best film still seems to me, by a mile, to be the scintillating Election, a construction of graceful metaphorical and allusive complexity. His last film, The Descendants, certainly transcended normal dull craftsmanship, but it was hard to see what so many people were swooning about. In a way, it’s easier to warm to Nebraska, if only because it’s apparently conceived as a lesser project, and so it’s easier to take it as such.
A lot of it’s in the casting. Forte is a quite inspired choice; the worry in his eyes is in itself worth a barrel of nuance. June Squibb, the little-known actress who plays Woody’s long-suffering wife, must be a strong award contender herself, given the eternal appeal of old women acting tough and talking dirty. Payne fills many of the small roles with people who certainly feel unappealingly un-actorly; at other times, though, you feel he might be daring us not merely to dismiss certain characters as lazy trash who you just want to turn your back on (if so, I failed the test).
Anyway, for me it was always going to be much more about Bruce Dern than anything else. He’s just about perfect in the role, but unfortunately it’s not the same as saying it’s the perfect Bruce Dern role. When people describe the younger Woody, it’s impossible to see how that correlates with what we know of the younger Dern, and by the same token, you can’t help wishing his career-capping performance was defined by great talk and action rather than by stiffness and confusion. It’ll still be a great Hollywood story if he wins the Oscar (although as a practical matter, I have no idea how a voter should choose between the relative strengths of Dern and of kick-ass contenders such as Robert Redford and Chiwetel Ejiofor) but it would be more like him winning a late-career promotional sweepstakes than reaping the logical rewards of his earlier great work.