What an unadulterated joy it is to see Bruce Dern leading a movie for a change – and a good movie, at that.
Alexander Payne's Nebraska may come to be seen as his swansong, but I hope it leads to a final decade of great performances from one of my all-time favourite actors, now 77 years old.
Dern has played a lot of disagreeable cranks in his time, but Woody Grant, the semi-senile retiree who keeps trying to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up a supposed million-dollar prize, is an almost opaque figure. Dern seems to have subtracted half of his own mind and awareness for the part, and this draws the audience toward him to find out, or guess at, the things his old age incites. Finally, his son David (SNL's Will Forte, in a revelatory straight performance) agrees to drive him the 800 miles to Lincoln, if only to prove there's really no prize. Along the way they stop off in the small town Woody abandoned decades ago, and fall prey to greedy, predatory relatives who believe Woody's story about the money. Shot in a lustrous but melancholy monochrome entirely appropriate to the movie's sombre tone, Nebraska is less about a quest for a million bucks than a search for meaning late in life, and the sadness that comes when we realise there isn't any. Dern, all windblown white hair and stubble, is often entirely silent and withdrawn, and all the more compelling and poignant for that.
Perhaps this late-blooming role will direct viewers back to some of the highlights of the Dern back catalogue, which need to be separated from the many bad movies he has also made. A good starting point is 1972's The Cowboys, in which Dern became the first man to kill John Wayne in a movie. "America will hate you for this," Wayne told Dern, who replied, "Yeah, but they'll love me in Berkeley!" In the 70s, after a long slog through every 60s TV western, a half-dozen Roger Corman cheapies (including The Trip and The Wild Angels) and a crucial small role in the flashback finale of Hitchcock's Marnie, he became the wild card of the Hollywood renaissance. As Jack Nicholson's con-man brother in The King Of Marvin Gardens, he embodies the self-delusion of the American dream of success and wealth, while his brutish Tom Buchanan in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby is one of the few worthwhile things about that stinker. Silent Running proved he could make interacting with robot-droids unbelievably real and heartbreaking, while his psychotic side was unleashed in the John Frankenheimer flop Black Sunday in 1975. Perhaps his greatest moment is in the finale of Coming Home when, facing his adulterous wife and her lover (Jane Fonda and Jon Voight) with his combat rifle, he loses it so badly that his hysterical voice rises to a murderous broken scream that is utterly chilling and heartbreaking. A magnificent actor – and well worth the homework.
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image: © Georges Biard