Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nebraska and Out of the Furnace

The first two films I saw in 2014 were in Las Vegas while visiting my father over the New Year's week.

Nebraska starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte; directed by Alexander Payne; (2013) - Official Website
Out of the Furnace starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson & Casey Afflect; directed by Scott Cooper; (2013) - Official Facebook

My father is a big fan of Alexander Payne.  He has cited Sideways and The Descendants as two of his favorite films.  I don't disagree with his assessment but I wasn't sure how my father would react to Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska.  As it turned out, I should have been concerned about how I would react.

Nebraska is the story of Woody Grant, an elderly Montana resident (Billings I believe).  He believes he has won $1,000,000 from a sweepstakes (à la Publishers Clearing House).  In fact, all he has is the "You Are a Finalist" letter.  While watching the film, I realized I don't get those PCH mailers anymore.  Woody has lost his driver's license and has had a longtime drinking problem.  However, he is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize money.

Concerned about his health (he appears to be exhibiting signs of dementia), Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) and sons David & Ross (Will Forte & Bob Odenkirk) discuss what to do with him.  Before the matter can be resolved, Woody's determination in going to Lincoln (by foot if necessary) prompts David to offer to drive him there.  David is coming off a break-up with his girlfriend and stuck in a dead-end job as a stereo salesman.  Looking to bond with his father, David sets off for Lincoln with Woody.

They stop off in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska.  Woody informs his old acquaintances that he has won $1 million which makes him the toast of the town.  David is unable to convince the townspeople that Woody's claim is bogus and before long, Woody's family and former acquaintances are demanding money.  This gives David a glimpse into his father's past life during the period before he was born.  Kate & Ross eventually show up for the reunion and Kate reveals further glimpses into Woody's life which David was unaware of.

Eventually, David & Woody make to PCH in Lincoln.  Woody is crushed to learn that his $1 million claim will not be honored.  On the drive back home, David asks his father why the money was so important since he had never expressed much interest in money before.  Woody explains his dreams of owning new pickup truck and air compressor as well as leaving something for his sons.  Understanding his father's motivations, David stops at a car dealership and buys a new truck and later a tool shop for a new air compressor.  When they arrive back at Hawthorne, David allows Woody to drive the new truck (with air compressor in the truck bed) down the main thoroughfare while he crouches down in the front seat.

Like Sideways and The Descendants is a road movie with two mismatched individuals.  In Sideways, it was Paul Giamatti & Thomas Haden Church searching for love and in The Descendants it was George Clooney & Shailene Woodley searching for their wife/mother's lover.  In Nebraska, it's unclear what Dern & Forte are searching for.  Frequently, it seems as though Payne is filming a travelogue and critique of the Midwest or small-town America.

Woody's friends and family come off very badly in the film.  Stacey Keach is particularly detestable as Woody's former business partner.  Woody is far from sympathetic though.  You could say Woody's best days are behind him but as his backstory is told, it's clear he didn't have far to fall.  He's lived his entire life in a shell-shocked, alcohol induced stupor which now matches the expected behavior of befuddled old man.  In other words, the sad part isn't how far he has fallen but how little he rose in life.  Dern's performance is spot on and completely lacking any type of weird Dernsian affectations.

Also memorable is June Squibb as Woody's long put-upon wife.  When she returns to her hometown, her sass and spunk become evident to David and viewers.  One wonders what their earlier life was like.  Kate's unfiltered comments provide much of the comedy in the film.

As for myself, I found that Woody's shuffling gait and bewildered obtuseness hit a little too close to home.  My father, an octogenarian, walks the same way as Woody and unexpected deviations from his routine can cause him confusion.  My father has never believed he has won a million dollars but while watching the film with him, I wondered what skeletons from his youth I was blissfully unaware of.  In general, I believe it best a child not know all the misdeeds and missteps their parents committed in their youth.  David is not saved that fate.

Nebraska also makes clear that marriages evolve.  The marriage the parents have when a child is old enough to understand is likely very different than the marriage the parents had in the past.  Kate is openly derisive of her husband but when she returns to their hometown and sees the vultures circling, she becomes protective and it clear that there is still love between them as well as familiar roles that they fall back into.


Out of the Furnace is a mediocre film.  Casey Affleck plays Rodney Baze, an Army reservist or Guardsman who is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder due to repeated deployments to Iraq & Afghanistan.  He has gambling debts to the local bookie (Willem Dafoe) which he pays off by fighting in unsanctioned bouts (think Fight Club).  Christian Bale plays Rodney's older brother Russell Baze, a steel mill worker who is always bailing out his younger brother.

I won't belabor the overly complicated plot but Rodney gets mixed up with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a meth dealer who runs his own underground fight club.  Dafoe owes DeGroat money so to clear the books Rodney agrees to fight in DeGroat's ring.  Technically, he agrees to take a dive but Rodney's pride makes the fix look sketchy.  In addition, DeGroat isn't willing to erase Dafoe's debt.  Long story short, Rodney & Dafoe's character are killed by DeGroat.

This motivates Russell to find his brother's killer.  He lures DeGroat out of rural Appalachia and they have their deadly confrontation.

The plot was both predictable and stuffed with too many characters and subplots.  I haven't mentioned Zoe Saldana as Russell's ex-wife, Forest Whitaker as the town sheriff, Sam Shepard as Russell's uncle or Russell's prison sentence for DUI.  In the end, the film is memorable for Woody Harrelson's performance as the tweaked out DeGroat and to a lesser extent, Casey Affleck as the troubled war vet.  The film certainly paints a vividly disturbing picture of the Meth Nation though.

Set in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Dafoe gets off the best line.  After Russell overhears DeGroat and an associate berating John Petty (Dafoe), he asks Petty who those guys were.  Petty replies (and I may have the quote slightly wrong), "Those are inbred motherfuckers from the mountains.  For them, church ain't over until they put the snakes back in the bag."

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