“Nebraska” –A Husky Tale in the Cornhusker State

Nebraska

In Alexander Payne’s Academy Award-nominated black-and-white drama, we see the story of a parent with unfulfilled dreams who has damaged adult children who care deeply but are also deeply wounded. A companion piece to “August: Osage County” (see my review January 29, 2014).

The film opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in the performance of his career!)  wandering the streets of  Billings, Montana.   Woody’s son, David (Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame) is called by the police to pick up his septuagenarian father who wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he believes he has won.  The all-too-common  mail scam  seems to be discounted by Woody who naively believes his luck has changed. Kate (the scene-stealing June Squibb) berates her husband as a fool for  insisting on collecting the money. David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo), a local news anchor, discuss putting Woody in a retirement home,  hinting of dementia or senility.  David reluctantly decides to drive his father to Lincoln, much to Kate’s and his brother’s dismay.  Perhaps he can unlock some of the secrets of his father’s past and grow closer to him on the road.

“Nebraska” is stark and lonely: an austere and  bleak landscape of place and mind, where life doesn’t seem to change and dreams remain unfulfilled.  Family dynamics locked into roles of self-deception echo and evoke “August”,   this time between father and sons, not mother and daughters.

The  brutally frank portrayal of aging and unhealed wounds are  at times comical and always heart-breaking.  Forte, best known as a zany comic actor,  makes an impressively restrained dramatic debut as a man who longs to connect yet is reflexively depressed. Odenkirk, as Ross, evolves in surprising and sympathetic ways as a witness to both his brother and father’s decline.

Ultimately, however,  this is Bruce Dern’s film.    His energy is still  there, only now beneath the surface:  dissipated, his rage turned inward, his hearing aid turned up a little to hear the voices inside his own head.

“August: Osage County”– Family Secrets and Lies

 “August: Osage County”, the Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, has been released as an Academy-Award nominated movie starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and an affecting Julia Roberts, together with a stunning supporting cast.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTYThe story is a disquieting look at the dysfunctionality of an American family with secrets and lies that keep coming and coming, when the viewer least expects them.

“August” opens in Osage County, Oklahoma, with an alcoholic academic, Beverly (the superb Sam Shephard), who likes to quote TS Eliot, interviewing a young Native American woman as a caregiver for Violet, his drug-addicted wife, who has  cancer of the mouth.  The cancer is most likely symbolic of Violet’s combative nature and the demons who are devouring her from within.

On a blistering hot day in August, Beverly sets out on his small boat and mysteriously goes missing. Beverly’s three adult daughters return to their family home, along with their husbands or lovers and their children, together with Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, and her husband Charlie with their son Little Charlie (a grown man.)  Secrets and lies surround Beverly’s disappearance, the major plot in “August: Osage County.”

The family’s dark past is painfully brought into the light, not only as it centers on the dying matriarch but also on the three daughters who have tried, and failed, to find loving relationships.  Mattie Fae is as complicated as Violet.  Revelations do not heal but simply damage further.  Each character chooses to hold on to their own lies rather than face reality and all its consequences. The viewer is the silent witness to the family wars.

As in other roles in which Streep inhabits an unsympathetic character (think:  “Kramer vs. Kramer,”  “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Iron Lady)” her understanding of each role makes you understand how each of these characters became damaged as well as draconian.  None of them are one-note stereotypes but layered, subtle, and original portrayals. Some critics disagree, but for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off of what I consider a shattering, unforgettable performance by Meryl Streep as a mother from hell. Please share whether you thought Streep overacted or got it just right.