Arguably one of Hollywood’s most talented-but-underutilized actors, Bruce Dern’s day has been a long time coming. Though he copped a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing an unsympathetic, warmongering husband in Hal Ashby’s 1978 anti-Vietnam War film Coming Home, and got good notices for smaller roles in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The King of Marvin Gardens, Dern’s not the sort of guy who gets top billing. Over his 54-year feature film career, the 77-year-old has been more frequently cast as unhinged and/or sadistic villains, like the Goodyear Blimp pilot intent on bombing the Super Bowl in Black Sunday.
The sole exception – Dern’s only starring role prior to Nebraska – was his portrayal of renegade space botanist Freeman Lowell in Douglas Trumbull’s environmentalist science fiction epic Silent Running. That was way back in 1972, and not since then has Dern been given an opportunity to own the screen the way that he does, gloriously, in Alexander Payne’s (The Descendents, Sideways, About Schmidt) latest film. His performance as Woody Grant, an ornery old alcoholic who clings desperately to the belief that he has won a million dollars in a direct-mail sweepstakes, won him the Best Actor prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and also from the National Board of Review.
These are honors well-earned, and Dern’s work is reason enough to make a point of seeing Nebraska; but the movie has a lot more going for it as well. If you’re fed up with Hollywood’s penchant for painting a world in which nearly all the people are improbably pretty, rich and glamorous, it will serve as a particularly welcome tonic. In fact, aside from Woody’s two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who are depicted as averagely dweeby denizens of Middle America during the Great Recession, practically every character in Nebraska is as grotesque-looking as someone in a Diane Arbus photograph, with a personality to match.