Bruce Dern was one of the finest actors of the 60s and 70s. However, somehow he never quite received the notice of some of his contemporaries such as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Caine and Warren Beatty. That indignity has continued and intensified into old age – while Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino and Caine still work with regularity, Beatty does not work often by choice and O’Neal is at the very least a tabloid favorite – Dern has mostly been well off the pop culture radar.
Dern has quietly continued working, though, often in indies and straight-to-video cheapies. The last time I personally saw him was in the sad supporting role of a New Orleans gangster boss in Inside Out, the 2011 vanity production for WWE wrestler Paul “Triple H” Levesque. Dern was just fine in the role, but it still seemed a huge waste of talent.
Therefore, while it is difficult to call Nebraska a career-defining role for Dern – just because he did so much fine work in his heyday – it should most certainly be a career-resurrecting role. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Grand Am, Caine’s Is Anybody There? and Nicholson’s About Schmidt (also by Nebraska director Alexander Payne), Nebraska requires a selfless and total immersion into a character that is elderly and cantankerous and still make the audience care.
The performance is quietly stunning, an award-worthy tour de forcein a film which has more than its share of fine acting. And if there is any fairness in the world at all, it will usher in an interesting final phase in Dern’s career.
Filmed in stunning black and white, Nebraska is at once as chilly and drab as the state which gives the movie its name and at the same time surprisingly vital, loving and heart-touching. You forget how affecting monochromatic cinematography could be, even though it was periodically used for effect in the 70s and 80s for stuff likePaper Moon, Young Frankenstein and Raging Bull. It has fallen out of favor in recent decades (probably because they say that now, despite the fact that it seems counter-intuitive, black and white filmmaking (and film) is significantly more expensive that color.
I’m not sure the world needs a steady diet of black and white, however this film is a strong reminder how well it works in some instances.
Dern plays Woody Grant, an unkempt and angry older man, a casual alcoholic who appears to be in the early stages of dementia. However, he still has many moments of clarity as well. He has received one of those mail fliers which screams out “You have won $1 million dollars” and then says in smaller letters “If you have the winning numbers.” Despite the fact that he lives in Billings, MT, Woody decides that he will walk to the contest people’s offices in Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings.