Realistically, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” anything, much less a perfect film. After all: one person’s concept of “amazing” is always someone else’s notion of “played-out.” That perfect hamburger? How do you know? If it were truly perfect, would it ever actually end? Wouldn’t that perfect sunset just continue on into infinity? Can humans, inherently faulty as we are, ever actually make something perfect? Could robots? What does “perfect” even mean? Is it as meaningless as “awesome” and “epic” in the Aught Tens? I bring up these points for one simple reason: I consider Alexander Payne’s Nebraska to be, essentially, a perfect film. I believe this through and through, even though all of the evidence points to how impossible it is. There is nothing perfect, although Nebraska is as perfect as it comes. This makes absolutely no sense…and I’m totally okay with that.
Some films hit me on a more pure, elemental level then other films. One of the best examples of this I can think of is PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights. I’ll never forget seeing that for the first time, in the theater, and just sitting there in stunned silence. I felt like I couldn’t even process the film on the first viewing: I could only sit back and absorb it. Immediately afterward, I bought another ticket and stayed for the next showing. To this day, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen Boogie Nights but it never fails to impress me and lift my spirits: the film is a complete masterpiece and was from opening night. My first experience with seeing Nebraska was nearly identical to my experience seeing Boogie Nights. I was immediately, completely and totally in love with the film from the jump and this impression gradually broadened and deepened into something approaching blind faith: I not only loved what I was currently seeing but I was positive I would love everything still to come. And I did.
Payne, one of modern filmmaking’s brightest talents, is no stranger to the prickly ways in which humans, particularly relatives, interact. His filmography may not be huge but it is ridiculously deep: Citizen Ruth, Election (another of my favorite films), About Schmidt, Sideways, the Descendants (another Oscar favorite) and Nebraska. Any of these would be a bright star in most writer/director careers but Payne’s CV is quite the embarrassment of riches. With Nebraska, however, he’s managed to hone the “Heartland shiv” of Election and Citizen Ruth into a merciless edge while adding in the richly textured familial issues of The Descendants. In the process, he’s crafted his best, most enduring film (thus far).
In a cinematic universe of “difficult” people, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) might be their supreme leader. Hard-drinking, stubborn, suffering from the first pangs of dementia and brutally honest, Woody is the kind of person who seems to exist solely to vex his loved ones. And vex them, he does. His long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb), and grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) have had just about as much of them as they can take: Kate, in particular, has taken to treating Woody like a flop-eared hound that won’t quit piddling on the rug. The thing is: Woody is one genuinely difficult dude. Not just prickly, mind you: genuinely difficult. When he receives one of those ubiquitous “You may already be a winner!” sweepstakes notices, he decides to walk from his home in Montana all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his “winnings.” Rather than have his father drop dead on the side of the road (and unable to convince him of the truth behind the sweepstakes), David decides to go with his dad and make it a father-son bonding trip. The stage is set for a sweet, nostalgic, heart-warming tale of reconciliation and family…except Woody couldn’t give two shits about his family and certainly doesn’t look forward to being stuck with his square son David. Tempers flare, hard truths are learned and David learns the most important lesson of all: You can’t always pick your fights and you can never pick your family. But, sometimes, that’s okay.
Picking out one individual aspect of Nebraska to laud is not only nearly impossible but unnecessarily reductive. The individual aspects of the film truly shine but it’s the sum of these parts that makes Nebraska an unmitigated classic. Right from the get-go, with the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the hauntingly simple but beautiful bluegrassy theme, the film felt timeless. Indeed, the film was so stunningly filmed that I was certain it would be a lock for cinematography, Gravity be damned. The camera-work in Gravity was flawless and head-scratching (how the hell DID they do that?) but the cinematography in Nebraska is beautifully evocative and so cinematic that it hurts. This was a film that looked as good as it “felt,” a perfect synthesis of form and function.
As is standard in Payne’s films, the acting is absolutely superb. In fact…here comes that word again…it’s pretty much perfect. Will Forte, so good as a comic, is a complete revelation as David. At once sympathetic, sweet and slightly pathetic, David is a fully realized, complex character, someone who all of us know (if we aren’t actually him, that is). Bob Odenkirk is marvelous as brother Ross, likewise reigning in his comedic tendencies to portray a character who’s equal parts fatigued snark and genuine compassion. It’s as far from Saul Goodman as possible and never less than 100% authentic. Stacy Keach has a terrific part as Woody’s former friend, Ed, a loutish civic leader who browbeats Woody mercilessly yet manages one of the most heartbreaking displays of emotion I’ve ever seen in a film: the part where he mockingly reads Woody’s letter to the bar is powerful stuff but the changing expression in his eyes as he realizes what he’s done to Woody is the stuff of legend. Keach has been far too scarce in films these days (I actually thought he was dead!) and it’s a tremendous shame: someone get this guy some more roles STAT!
In a cast this excellent, this perfect, however, there are still two standouts, two performers that brought completely indelible characters to life. June Squibb, as Kate, is a complete revelation, an actress so watchable, so absolutely compelling, that I find myself wondering why I never noticed her before. Kate is a real person: an honest-to-God flesh and blood creation. I know several people like Kate: many of them are also my family members. You know many people like Kate: some of them are likely your family, as well. As a character, she’s flawed, sometimes reveling in a level of nasty “honesty” that’s breathtaking in its cruelty. The scene where she visits the family cemetery with Woody and David is amazing, one of those scenes that film fans should remember in the same way that they do the “Hold it between your knees” scene from 5 Easy Pieces. As she walks about the graveyard, Kate keeps a constant running commentary about their interred relatives: this one was a slut, that one was an idiot, this other one always wanted to “get in her pants.” In the piece de resistance, however, Kate stops before the grave of a former beau, hikes up her skirt and stands before the tombstone: “See what you could have had if you didn’t talk about weed all the time?!” It’s a vulgar, hilarious, awesome moment, one of those bits that deserves to go down in cinematic history. While I was happy to see Nyong’o win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, Squibb was, hands-down, the best of the four performances I saw (sorry Julia: Osage was a bit hard to get ahold of).
And then, of course, there’s Bruce Dern. To be honest, I’m not sure how much acting Dern did for the film: perhaps that’s why he ended up losing to McConaughey (who also completely deserved the award, ironically). Perhaps this is how Dern really is. Perhaps he’s nothing like this. At the end of the day, there’s only one thing I knew: this was the single most perfect acting performance of the entire year. The whole thing. Better than McConaughey (who was astounding), better than Ejiofor. Better than anyone, actually. At no point in the film did it ever feel like Dern was acting. Nothing felt inauthentic, every beat and facial expression was well-earned and it was that rarest of modern acting performances: a stellar turn that did not revolve around flawless mimicry (sorry, Meryl). Perhaps it’s because of my own experiences with an elderly father but I completely identified with everything about both Woody and David: I experienced the same measure of heartwarming/breaking that I did in real life. If you have no experience with elderly parents, perhaps you won’t be affected as deeply. With acting this masterful, however, I’m betting you will.
So we have a great looking/sounding film and amazing performances. What else is there? Well, how about the funniest, freshest, funkiest script in ages? While Nebraska is anything but a joke-a-minute laughathon, it is shockingly funny, more so than any indie “dramedy” I’ve yet seen. Much of the humor definitely comes from the verisimilitude of the absurd situations (I laughed like an idiot during the scene where David’s yokel cousins mock him for taking so long to drive there, since I’ve had that exact same conversation with similar idiots in the past) but there’s just as many great one-liners and exchanges flying around. One of my favorite scenes has to be the one where Woody, Kate and David eat lunch in a small diner. Woody spends an inordinate amount of time studying the menu. When Kate asks him, “What are you having, old man?” he resolutely replies “Meatloaf.” Her exasperated comeback could have come straight from my childhood: “You’ve been staring at that menu for ten minutes…where does it say meatloaf?”At another point, David tells Woody that “All of your brothers are coming over.” “Some of them are dead.” David looks at Woody, for a beat, before replying: “The dead ones won’t be coming over.” Classic.
All of these various elements would be impressive enough but the one thing uniting them all is the most important: heart. Nebraska has a big heart, much bigger than the gently mean sarcasm would have you believe. You can see the genuine emotion creeping at the edge of every frame, sneaking into each scene like an insistent boom mic. The emotion isn’t always on the forefront but, when it is, the film burns with an almost palpable sense of pain. If you don’t feel something when Kate sits as Woody’s bedside, you probably don’t have much to feel. If you don’t tear up at the end, as David lets him father drive triumphantly through town, you’re probably already dead.
In the end, Nebraska is that most impossible of films: a scruffy, mean, hilarious, heartfelt celebration of the Heartland and all of the people who inhabit it. There are no characters here, only real people reacting with the same pain, humor, bias, hatred and love that we all do. Whereas every other film that I saw for Oscar season (including the otherwise incredible Dallas Buyers Club) struggled with notions of authenticity, Nebraska was the only one that I bought part and parcel. Like I said before: I know these people. I grew up with them. I probably love and hate them with equal fervor. If there were major flaws with the film, I couldn’t find them. If you can, I’m guessing we’ll probably never see completely eye to eye. That’s okay, though: there are no perfect films, so you, but Nebraska is just perfect enough for me.