Monday, January 27, 2014


I've never been to Nebraska, but between the old Bruce Springsteen album and the new film by Alexander Payne, I have a pretty good idea of the place: long, lonesome highways, little old churches, and people who haven't done or seen much, because there simply isn't much there to do or see. Springsteen wrote about the desperation and anger of the place. In Payne's Nebraska, we see the flip-side: the ennui and the small-mindedness that comes from such provincialism. Grudges last a long time there, and everyone knows everyone else's business.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) left a long time ago for Billings Montana, but he thinks he's won a million dollars in a bogus mail order contest, and the only way he can claim his money is to appear at the contest's promotional headquarters in Lincoln. The problem is that he's very old and can't drive himself. He recruits his son David (Will Forte) to take him. David  assures him that the contest is a sham, but he likes the idea of hitting the road for a few days because he's dealing with his own problems, namely a dreary job selling audio equipment, and a girlfriend who has just left him. David also hopes to spend a little time with the old man before it's too late. Woody's mind is wandering. It won't be long before he's in a nursing home, unable to fend for himself.

Along the way, we learn a lot about Woody. He was not a great father, nor was he a great husband. He drank too much, and cheated on his wife. He was also a man who couldn't say no to anyone, and was often taken advantage of in his younger days, which might account for why he left Nebraska. The script by Bob Nelson parses out the information in small doses, but by the end of the film we have a complete picture of this old man. Dern, who grunts and seems dazed for most of the film, plays the role as if distracted by something that weighs heavily on him. The future, perhaps, or his lack of one.
Payne made another film similar to this one, About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. Payne has matured as a filmmaker since then, for that previous film relied on a kind of gross slapstick for laughs, and occasionally turned maudlin. Nebraska is a sharper, more sophisticated version of a similar story of a man returning to his past, visiting some old haunts, and relying on a pipe dream: Schmidt was futilely trying to break up his daughter's wedding; Woody Grant wants to collect his money so he can buy a new truck. It's a smaller dream, but perhaps the theme of Nebraska is that even the smallest of dreams can leave a man broken.

Where Payne hasn't changed is in his habit of showing ignorant locals and fat people with bad haircuts in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. He displays the citizens of Hawthorne NE as if he's bringing us into a carnival of grotesques. Now, if Federico Fellini did this I'd think it was fine, so maybe I should give Payne a break. Payne also happens to be a Nebraska native, so maybe he's just having a little fun. Still, I never get the sense that Payne loves these Hawthorne characters, the way I sense Martin Scorsese loves every last hoodlum in his movies.

But Payne does seem to have an affection for every roadside attraction and cheap barroom in the neighborhood, all recorded lovingly in black and white by veteran cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.  By not filming in color, Payne and Papamichael create an  empty, barren Nebraska, where everyone seems to have spent a lifetime standing in the wind. The coldness of the place is especially visceral when they focus on the farmland that seems so vast and depressing. If the people here move slowly, it's because there's so much damned land to cover. Even the cows seem still as concrete, as if they'd given up long ago.

There are some great performances in Nebraska. I particularly liked Stacy Keach as an old friend of Woody's who has a nasty side; June Squibb as Woody's wife, who seems like a ballbuster but actually maintains a well-guarded fondness for the coot; Bob Odenkirk as Woody's oldest son; and Angela McEwen as the editor of the local newspaper. The scene where Forte learns she was once a girlfriend of Woody's  is one of the best in the movie. The players cast as Woody's extended family are great at showing the pettiness that erupts when they learn Woody may be a millionaire.
Dern deserves the accolades he's received for his turn as Woody Grant, but the unsung hero of the piece is Will Forte as David. He seems at first like a meek, well-meaning son, the one who was called "a beautiful baby," but  he shows some backbone when he needs it.  A magnanimous gesture he makes near the film's end may leave you a bit wet-eyed. At the very least, you'll agree with him that even the smallest of dreams should be coaxed towards reality, and that everyone deserves a shot at driving through their hometown like a winner.

Watching All Is Lost reminded me of something the late Andrew Sarris wrote many years ago.

"It is the actor we see aging and dying on the screen, not the director, writer, or other behind-the-screen artist. It is time we acknowledge this fundamental fact."

In short, All Is Lost is about Robert Redford on a sinking boat. He tries to patch up the hole in the side, but more leaks appear until it's apparent that this old man in the sea is fighting a lost cause. Redford's character doesn't have a name here - he's listed in the credits as "our man." He may as well have been listed as "Robert Redford."

Redford, or at least Redford as we think we know him, is a perfect choice for the role.  Since there are no other actors in the film, we spend the whole time looking at Redford, hence, we think about his past, the various romantic types he's played,  the electric cowboys and stoic types, and it occurs to us that he doesn't have an easily distinguishable character. As far as iconic movie stars go, he's always been as bland as a wax figure. He works perfectly in All Is Lost because there has never really been such a thing as "the Robert Redford character." Try to imitate Redford. You can't. Yet, imagine another actor, a Robert Downey Jr. or a Will Smith, in All Is Lost. Could they keep their mouths shut for an entire movie? I doubt it.  Or imagine Sly Stallone in the role.  You'd never fear for his safety. You imagine he'd fix the boat, and maybe even wrestle a shark. Maybe he'd kill the shark, and use the carcass to plug up the holes in his boat. That's Stallone. With Redford, you don't have a preconceived notion of his character. He might survive. Maybe not. You don't know.

The film opens with a brief voice over from Redford. He's reading what sounds like a goodbye letter to the world. His last words are "I'm sorry." Sorry for what? We never know. We never learn anything more about him.  In a lesser movie, there'd be a scene where Redford is rummaging around in the boat and finds a family album; he'd look through it we'd see some semblance of his life. Worse, there'd be a cheesy flashback of him and a loved one. Director J.C. Chandor can't be bothered with flashbacks and family albums. But we do see Redford eating beans, sleeping, trying to fix his boat. The film could easily have been made in the 1920s - I can imagine it as a Robert Flaherty picture about one man against the elements, or a D.W. Griffiths epic with Mary Pickford trying to save the boat. It would've been beautiful as a silent film. It's not bad now, either.
Redford has played men of nature in the past, various mountain men and horse whisperers.  Nature is his co-star here. There are many scenes of Redford's granite profile against a pale blue, enormous sky. the difference here is that Redford is not playing a man of nature. This time, he's up against it. And losing. Redford doesn't work often, so there must have been something here that meant something to him, the futility of communication, perhaps. The man who created the Sundance Film Festival, and has had millions of eyes on him for decades, was intrigued by a character who screams for help but isn't heard.
In a way, All Is Lost is also meditation on aging - the boat ultimately betrays Redford, as our bodies will do for all of us.  I love the scene where Redford jumps to a large raft as his boat sinks. The boat doesn't go down all at once, but slowly,  one part of it remaining above water like a man's arm waving for help. Redford can't even watch. He turns his head, almost ashamed. 

Some have said that Redford deserved an Academy Award nomination because he performed this role with minimal dialog. Considering that most movie dialog is bad, the lack of dialog  may have actually been to his advantage. Others have said that he underplayed too much, or that he was too casual. I, too, felt this way at first. Then I grew to like the way Redford kept things close to the vest. I liked how he seemed in control through most of the film. Then, imperceptibly, he starts to slump. I noticed it around the fifth leak. Later, he reaches a point of such desperation that he sets the raft on fire and dives out, hoping a passing boat will see the flames. If he's not seen, he drowns. The look on his face as he waits to be noticed is astounding.  It's over: all is lost.

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