Review: Will Forte and Bruce Dern do great small-scale work in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Bob Nelson’s got to be floating on air right now. The screenwriter of the new film “Nebraska” has been working in the industry since at least 1996, and this is his first produced feature. Not only did he manage to find a filmmaker who was excited about his work, but that filmmaker turned out to be Alexander Payne, and the film is a smart, subtle, stripped-down gem, a low-fi version of what we’re used to seeing Payne do. Even better, Nelson’s script may finally earn Bruce Dern a sort of lifetime achievement award, a full season of people seeing the veteran actor’s praises thanks to a performance that highlights what it is he’s done so well for so long.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is, for lack of a better term, an old cuss. He has never been particularly easy on his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife Kate (June Squibb) has long since curdled. As he’s gotten older, Woody has maintained a more and more tenuous grasp on reality, and it seems like he may have finally turned a corner. He has become fixated on a piece of sweepstakes mail that came to his house, convinced that he’s won a $1 million prize, and all he has to do is get to their office in Nebraska to pick it up. Each day, he starts out to make the trip on foot, and it’s become a real problem for his family and for local law enforcement. He seems to have no regard for the conditions or the weather or how he’s going to survive while he’s en route.

It falls on David to sort things out, and he finally decides that the only way Woody’s going to get it all out of his system is to drive him to the office so they can tell him in person that there is no prize. This is what everything else builds from in the film, and I think Payne is attracted to that kind of narrative simplicity. What makes a film like “Nebraska” complicated and dense isn’t the plotting. Instead, it’s the emotional turbulence that blows across that landscape that makes the film so interesting.

I’m not sure I would have ever imagined Will Forte playing this kind of part, but he’s very good in the film, and there’s something about his innate sweetness that seems to me to be a perfect reaction to a life lived constantly worried about a father’s anger. He never oversells it, either. He is certainly capable of getting exasperated with his father, but he also knows that it’s a losing battle. I think this could change the way people think about Forte overall. Not every “Saturday Night Live” veteran successfully makes that jump from the show to film and even fewer make a successful jump from comedy to drama. It’s interesting that his brother is played by Bob Odenkirk, who wrote for SNL for nearly a decade and who is also well known for sketch comedy with his “Mr. Show” background. Odenkirk made this jump a while ago, though, and won plenty of acclaim for his work on “Breaking Bad,” even earning a spin-off series playing his same character. I doubt Payne had any sort of master plan, especially considering how many actors I know were actively fighting to get into that room to read for that role, but casting both Forte and Odenkirk in relatively serious roles here, he gets some lovely results. The two of them have a tense rapport, a suggested history that seems palpable.

June Squibb has been a working actor for 50 years, but she only started working in film in 1990. Probably her first significant role was thanks to Alexander Payne as well, when she played Helen Schmidt in “About Schmidt,” and while she’s remained busy for the last 23 years, she’s never had a part as good as this. She seems utterly unimpressed by Woody, unmoved by his frailty, unable to pull her punches when it comes to how angry she is about pretty much everything. She isn’t moved by Woody’s fading mind because she knows how long he’s been emotionally absent anyway. One of the things I liked a lot about the film is the way it never does any sort of conventional softening of the characters. This isn’t the neat and slick version of the film that Hollywood would normally make. It doesn’t feel like the rough edges have been sanded off of these characters, and the film is better for it. Stacy Keach shows up as a guy from the small town where Woody used to live who ends up encountering David and Woody when they stop in town during their trip, and it’s a great smarmy Keach performance.

Ultimately, if Bruce Dern’s performance didn’t work, the film wouldn’t work at all. Dern made his career playing creepy weirdos and raving nuts, but he was always one of those guys who had the occasional cross-over into respectability. At one point, he was able to make movies like “Drive, He Said,” “The Cowboys,” and “Silent Running” back to back, and he closed out the ’70s, arguably his best decade, with an Oscar nomination for “Coming Home.” He almost totally burned his career down with “Tattoo,” and I still vividly remember how crazy the stories were that came out of the production of that film. It feels like every time Dern’s been on the verge of fading out, though, he rallies for a great performance in some small film, and in many ways, “Nebraska” feels like the culmination to all of that. Anything mannered or arch about Dern in any of his films is gone now, and Woody ends up being affecting precisely because Dern doesn’t ladle it on. On those moments where he drops his defenses completely and he seems like he’s completely clear, there is such a deep existential dread that we see there that it is almost impossible to take.

I love Phedon Papamichael’s work as a photographer, and I’m not sure any of his films have ever looked like “Nebraska” before. The black-and-white aesthetic seems like a perfect way to capture the world the way it feels for these characters, and it makes this feel like an alien landscape they’re traversing. It grounds them in this emotional space, and it just furthers his ongoing creative partnership with Payne. This is a very simple, very direct experience, as strong a film as Payne’s made so far, and I feel like the longer I spend thinking about the movie, the more it expands for me. It’s a sly, beautiful, delicate film, and Payne’s knack for getting great performances out of his cast is on full display.

“Nebraska” opens in theaters this Friday.