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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper


Or: The Big Empty

Nebraska is that strangest of creatures, the restful american film. There is something about a series of black and white shots of the great expanse of mid-continental sky, the rolling fields of wheat, the lonely trio of horn, accordion and fiddle that just mellow the viewer out. The plot is almost incidental, a necessary filler for those melancholy stretches of midwestern beauty, and the audience doesn’t really mind that its predictable as water’ll be wet and friends’ll turn false and cheese’ll grow moldy in the rain.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), sometime mechanic and all time drunk, thinks he has struck it rich. After receiving a letter authorizing him to collect a million dolors in cash Woody makes several attempts to walk from his home in Billings Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska despite the efforts of his wife (the corse but surprising June Squibb) and the sherifs department to keep him at home. His youngest son David (Will Forte) at last relents and agrees to drive him across four states, partially to shut his father up and partially because he realizes this is the last hope that his old man still holds on to. Things start to fall apart when they stop to tour Woody’s hometown, hit hard by the recession, and the townsfolk, lead by Woody’s long time foe Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach), catch wind that the grizzled prodigal son is a millionaire.

This is a very honest film. Nothing is “charming” or “plucky” about the small towns our hero’s glide through. Not one of the characters is “Hollywood smart” or “Hollywood pretty” and they are pretty much dead wringers for the folks you’d meet in that part of the world. This translates into a certain artlessness in their delivery of lines and interaction, but since that’s mostly snipes and swipes at each other not much is lost. Even Forte, ever the comedian can’t seem to lift himself out of hometown dolefulness, though toward the end he does add a few shades of satisfaction by the films end, that warm our hearts and little snowdrops brighten a tundra field. But it is Dern’s performance, if you know Dern’s past work, that really shine. The veteran villain makes a mixes concoction of Surliness, and Mindlessness, and Tenacity just right for Woody’s quest to get one last good break. The trouble is his performance is so subtle that it blends right into the bleak background and stays there like the beauty of the midwest: only there if you can focus on the big picture and let go of the little details.

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