Determined to pick up a nonexistent million-dollar mailshot prize, an elderly father on the edge of dementia is driven across America by his long-suffering son.
Sideways by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Winner of the Best Actor Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, veteran Bruce Dern gives a performance of a lifetime as Woody, a cantankerous, truculent old man obsessively determined to get from his home in Billings, Montana to Nebraska. He’s probably in the early stages of dementia, and has convinced himself he has a million-dollar prize waiting for him there – in reality, the letter he received was just convincing-looking advertising junk mail. We first see him picked up by police as he is doggedly setting off on his own to walk – he’s so hard-up he no longer has a vehicle – the 800 miles there in the remnants of the winter’s snow. Dern brilliantly shape shifts his body into a decrepit, angry and deluded, wild haired old man with a loose, stumbling gait.
Will Forte (from Saturday Night Live, in his first ‘straight man’ role) is also exceptional as David, one of Woody’s two sons, stuck in a dead-end job, who bangs his head against a brick wall trying to convince him that the prize doesn’t exist, but then, hoping for a bonding moment, compassionately offers to drive him to Nebraska – “He just needs something to live for”. The other, more successful, son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local TV presenter, is unsympathetic – “He never gave a shit about us.” And it’s true. Woody is a drunk, who all his life has been uncommunicative, unconscious and apparently uncaring. His long-suffering, sharp-tongued wife, Kate, the wonderful octogenarian June Squibb (from About Schmidt), is typically caustic – “I never knew he wanted to be a millionaire. He should have started earlier and worked harder” – yet she has an underlying tenderness which is uncovered as more is revealed.
All Woody really wants is a new truck, a compressor and something to leave his children. The illusory money, and his quest for it, which he may or may not actually believe in, is only a way he has left to ever give his life some meaning and leave a tangible legacy. Father and son, who have never really known each other, set off a tragicomic road trip together – heading east rather than west – across an American wasteland of bleak, wide, wintry agricultural landscapes that dwarf the road and their car, run-down small towns with main streets so deserted they practically have tumbleweed blowing down them and communities peopled with characters who could have come straight from something by Diane Arbus. Bob Nelson’s sharp screenplay is both very sad and very funny. All of this is shot in beautiful poetic monochrome by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael which gives the Midwest and Alexander Payne’s home state of Nebraska a timeless, mythic quality.
After Election, The Descendants, Sideways and the similarly themed About Schmidt, this is Payne’s visual storytelling of the American dream and at its post-industrial heart, the dream is empty. On their way Woody and David pass Mount Rushmore, that iconic American symbol, but Woody is uninterested and unimpressed – “It doesn’t look finished to me. We’ve seen it. Let’s go.” In America’s small towns, people can be funny and brave, but also greedy and stupid. Woody and David stop off midway at Hawthorne, the economically depressed hometown where Woody and Kate grew up and which they swiftly left when they were married, to visit Woody’s brother and his family. There’s a wonderful scene of several generations of men in the family watching a ball game together on television, shot from behind the TV, all blank faced and silent, unable to talk about anything other than a car one of them once had. David’s two cousins, Tweedledee and Tweedledum couch potatoes, have no work and no conversation other than how long the drive took.
Word gets round that Woody has won a million dollars and he’s treated as a celebrity. The more David denies it, the more everyone wants to believe it’s true. Money gives Woody status. The men in the local bar cheer when he walks in. The news brings out some truths – David learns things about his father’s complex past that he never knew that serve to explain a lot about his life since – and also people’s venality. Everyone wants a piece of the nonexistent money and ancient creditors, like his unscrupulous former business partner Ed Pegram (excellent Stacy Keach) are prepared to bully and threaten to collect old debts that may or may not have ever existed. Kate and Ross join them there for the family get-together, and they make a nostalgic visit to the local cemetery and to the house where Woody remembers his harsh childhood, which is now deserted and derelict. But then, when the truth of Woody’s delusion comes out in a brutal way, he’s the butt of derisive laughter in the bar.
Eventually, Woody and David reach Nebraska and the inevitable disillusion. But David finds a way to restore a shred of Woody’s dignity, albeit briefly, by selling his car, buying him the longed-for truck himself and letting him drive it briefly and proudly through the centre of Hawthorne in full view of the community who had mocked him. And making a journey that initially appeared pointless has forced the family confront a deeper reality. Nebraska is a bleak view of contemporary America but also a loving one, its director says.
Nebraska is released on 6th December 2013 in the UK