Directed by Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Bruce Dern as Woody Grant
Will Forte as David Grant, Woody’s son
June Squibb as Kate Grant, Woody’s wife
Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant, Woody’s other son
Stacey Keach as Ed Peagram, Woody’s ex-partner
After The Artist and Much Ado About Nothing I wondered when the next black and white feature film would appear. Alexander Payne shot this with digital cameras and anamorphic lenses, meaning it’s ultra-wide screen, but sharp all the way. It also means it will be very long and thin on a domestic TV – a note against the DVD. It picked up six Oscar nominations, five Golden Globe nominations and three BAFTA nominations, but didn’t win any of them. It got awards, but lesser ones.
Woody (Bruce Dern)
Briefly, Woody Grant thinks he really has won a million dollars in one of those advertising campaigns (with lots of small print explaining that you haven’t) and sets off from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son, David, to collect his prize. His wife Kate and other son, Ross, try to stop him, but he keeps wandering off to walk the 700-odd miles, and eventually David decides to humor him by driving him there. They stop off in his home town in Hawthorne, Nebraska on the way.
It’s a road trip with an old guy at the centre, and this ties in with the success of recent old people movies like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. There are a lot of brilliant older actors out there who still want to work. Both those British ones were full at our local cinema, and we couldn’t even get in to see the first when we went, and it was fully-booked for the next night too. The producers are discovering the baby boomers still like a night out at the pictures. In this case a beautifully-filmed, well-acted, but ultra slow-paced night out at the pictures, and American rather than the normal British film directed at the grey pound. We saw it at a dual-purpose theatre / cinema with a clock on the wall, and I’d guessed we were about 90 minutes in, glanced at the clock and it was only 50. It’s not dull at all, nor over-long, and I wasn’t bored, just surprised … it just takes its time.
Part of the slow pace is that it’s about an old man, Woody Grant, probably alcoholic, bordering on dementia in a task that everyone except him knows is futile. That is until they stop in his home town, Hawthorne (where we are for most of the film). We meet the relatives, and neighbours and they believe he’s won a million dollars. For his son, David (Will Forte) comes the realization of how little he knew about his dad, and in fragments, stories he’s never heard before start to fill in some idea about Woody’s life.
There are some very funny bits. The dumb country cousins are great. They look like twins. They claim to have driven 850 miles from Dallas in 8 hours … I laughed because I knew someone (thick) who always thought they’d driven long distances in impossibly short times.
The cousins, with David to the right
At one point their mom says they’re out picking up litter from the roadside. I’ll paraphrase:
– Volunteering? That’s nice of them.
– No community service.
– For rape, says David’s mom, interrupting.
– No! protests his aunt, it was sexual assault!
The wide skies and huge distances are all over the film. It’s colourless, because so is life there. The towns are bleak, insular, probably inbred. The dumb cousins look like they are. Nothing happens. I’ve driven through similar country. Miles and miles before you get to a town, then when you do, it’s got 1253 people (I think that was the population board outside Hawthorne) and is declining.
The family in Hawthorne
The film is funny, sentimental to a degree, though these are not sentimental people. They’re mono-syllabic, dysfunctional, but not sentimental. Woody and his brothers haven’t seen each other for 20 or 30 years. They don’t care. they have nothing to say to each other when they do meet. Woody is doggedly persistent. That’s the best description of his blinkered quest.
Kate (June Squibb) peruses the menu in Hawthorne, Nebraska
The principle performers and the bit parts are absolutely convincing. I’m surprised Bruce Dern didn’t win something major, and June Squibb’s support role is also a major performance. Stacey Keach as the villainous and threatening old partner, Ed Peagram, is a fabulous performance. In the end, I think there was more startling stuff around this year, and the slow steady pace told against it. 2013 was a strong year. In other years I think it may have won few.
David (Will Forte), Woody and Ed Peagram (Stacey Keach)