Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Stacy Keach
Forgive the first ten minutes.
“Nebraska” doesn’t start well. The dialogue is stilted, there’s too much exposition and the actors, particularly Bob Odenkirk and June Squibb, seem to be struggling to find the proper shade and tone for their performances. But after an admittedly contrived opening, the script sharpens up, the actors gain their footing and “Nebraska” comes to life.
The one constant is Bruce Dern. Over the course of five decades, the man has undergone a magnificent transformation as a thespian. Typecast as a psycho (even more so than Anthony Perkins), Dern specialized in bug-eyed, scene-stealing roles, a bad guy capable of almost anything (including, in “The Cowboys”, shooting John Wayne in the back). Every so often he would be gifted with a part that suited his enviable talents and he’d blow us away with a magnificent, intelligent, inspired turn: as the cuckolded husband in “Coming Home” or Jack Nicholson’s hustler brother in “The King of Marvin Gardens”. Personally, I thought he was nothing less than brilliant in “Silent Running”, a movie where he is the sole human character for over half the picture.
In an interview on “Charlie Rose”, Mr. Dern described a discussion with director Alexander Payne just prior to shooting on “Nebraska” commenced. Payne informed the veteran actor that he was well aware of his abilities but in the role of Woodrow Grant wanted to see him “do” as little as possible. Woody is a man of few words, undemonstrative, increasingly befuddled and infuriated by the world around him. He challenged Dern to underplay Woody, to pare his performance down to nothing and, by God, Dern took him up on it. To perfection.
The people in “Nebraska” are westerners, denizens of the great plains; hard-bitten and taciturn and stoic. The descendants of settler stock. Survivors. Payne knows these folks well, capturing their essence without exaggeration or caricature (unlike the Coen brothers’ “Fargo”, for instance) and he has an eye for faces that brings to mind Dreyer or Bresson. Real faces of real people, who live in the midst of a huge expanse, a vast, endless table of land that stretches from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the 100th meridian. Isolated, insular, self-reliant folk, courageous (or foolhardy) enough to pit themselves against drought, cold, almost every plague or misfortune known to humankind. And yet they persevere—they may not thrive but they mange to make a go of it; it is their courage and fortitude that commends them, not any claim to moral rectitude. Nice people don’t cut it on a frontier.
“Nebraska” is a quiet, unsentimental homage to a disappearing breed of men and women who dream of a better world but are forced by circumstance to make do with what life offers them. Woody desperately wants to be a millionaire, someone of significance. He’s old, he might be a bit addled, but he’s not stupid.
To their credit, right up to the last frame Dern and Payne refuse to strip him of his dignity. After all the other disappointments and setbacks he has endured, that would simply be too cruel.
Good on them.
ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)
* * * * *
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenplay: Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne
Matthew McConaughey is on a tear.
Over the course of the past few years he has gifted us with some stellar performances in films like William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” (2011) and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” (2012), but with “Dallas Buyers Club” he has taken his game to a whole other level. He rivals George Clooney in terms of sheer charm but, unlike Clooney, possesses a sense of menace and potential danger; a sidewinder, coiled and waiting to strike.
“Dallas Buyers Club” highlights both his affability and his dark Texan heart. As Ron Woodroof he is immediately believable, inhabiting his skinny, decaying body with an ease that is all the more admirable because it seems so bloody effortless. He may have AIDS, he may or may not be dying, but he sure as hell doesn’t want our sympathy. He’s got his life to live.
Ron’s journey from rodeo cowboy to AIDS activist is gradual and mesmerizing. He’s a good old boy, rough as leather, hard as nails. He loves to party, screw around and the very thought of homosexuality inspires ugly, cringe-worthy epithets. By the end of his life Ron may not be advocating for gay rights but he certainly recognizes a community of the fellow afflicted, marginalized by the mainstream, rejected by their families, dying horribly while pharmaceutical companies, in collusion with the medical system, either ignore them or use them as human guinea pigs for their toxic remedies. Human experimentation…weren’t the Nazis vilified for doing something similar?
“Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t pretty or reassuring and, like “Nebraska”, refuses to cater to sentiment. Woodroof’s antics frequently provoke a wince, the sex makes us blush and the consequences tear out our hearts.
At this point I must say something about Jared Leto. Playing a gay character presents special challenges and it’s so easy to get it wrong and allow camp to take over. Leto’s “Rayon” is a perfect creation, fully formed, as real as you or I. His performance inspires awe. When he and McConaughey are onscreen at the same time, they play off each other like old, bitchy lovers, the oddest couple ever thrown together. They both deserve Oscars.
We lived in the shadow of a Plague. It claimed some of our best and most beautiful. It fed off our need to be loved or, at least, to be seen as desirable. Some called it judgement against our sins. It started out as a “gay disease” but it didn’t stay that way. In hospices and palliative wards around the world. Roomfuls of the dying. I remember one in particular.
This review is dedicated to David.