Some movies are tougher sells than others. Certain films are almost willfully difficult to sell. How about a nice uplifting movie called All Is Lost, which features exactly three instances of dialogue — some voice over in the beginning, a distress call spoken into a malfunctioning radio, and one expletive shouted to the heavens. (If I were in this character’s place, there would have been a lot more profanity.)
As in many years, the slate of films that will compete in 2013’s awards race have many differences, but a slew of similarities are cropping up. All Is Lost is not the first film to feature a beloved Hollywood veteran in peril on the Indian Ocean — first upon his own vessel, then on a lifeboat. The other is Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks in the titular role; like Robert Redford in All Is Lost, he remains cool as a cucumber for a long stretch of the film despite rapidly decreasing chances for survival. Both Redford and Hanks will be major factors in the Best Actor conversation this year.
And then there’s Gravity, one of the year’s biggest success stories. Like All Is Lost, it’s primarily concerned with one character’s survival in a rather hopeless situation — outer space is probably the only lonelier and more terrifying place than being adrift in the middle of a massive ocean. Unlike All Is Lost, it’s presented in 3D with jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art visual effects, which makes it feel like a thrill ride. Gravity was a bit of a tough sell, by Hollywood standards — it’s an original story, after all! Its success was in no way guaranteed. Still, it made a few concessions for mainstream audiences — so guess which film has grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, and which has made a little over $4 million? The difference is a little shocking, considering that, at heart, All Is Lost and Gravity are the same movie.
But All Is Lost is a tough sell. There’s virtually no dialogue, and it’s probably the only movie this year to have a smaller cast than Gravity. It’s just Robert Redford. That’s it. And he isn’t even given a name. Last year’s Oscar-winning shipwreck drama Life Of Pi gave its hero a handful of animals to chatter with; Robert Redford doesn’t even have a volleyball. Tom Hanks carried Cast Away largely on his own, as Suraj Sharma did with Life Of Pi and Sandra Bullock does in Gravity. But there’s no Wilson, no Richard Parker, and no howling Chinese guy for Redford to bounce off of here — he doesn’t even mutter to himself the way a lot of us would. He is alone. All Is Lost makes Cast Away, Life Of Pi, and Gravity look positively sprawling with supporting players.
The film begins with Redford’s character, in voice over, dictating a letter to his family (presumably), declaring that “all is lost” and his doom is impending. That’s roughly all the insight into this man we’ll get — he apologizes for his stubbornness, but it’s too little, too late. Flash back eight days, and we see the beginning of this man’s troubles as a crate that must’ve fallen from a barge impales his vessel, Virginia Jean, leaving a sizable hole in it. (The contents of the crate? Thousands of pairs of children’s shoes, ironically — for when we get old, it’s as if countless young are kicking us out of this world.) “Our Man,” as he’s credited, is surprisingly cavalier at finding his boat flooded with water. (Like I said, if it were me, this movie would have earned an R rating for profanity in those first five minutes.)
But that’s because Our Man is the kind of guy who knows enough about survival to go sailing in the Indian Ocean unaccompanied. We can guess that his family wasn’t too happy about it, but Redford is playing the kind of guy we’ve probably all encountered at least once, likely within our own families — whose stubbornness increases at the same rate as his age, even as their physical bodies grow less and less capable of withstanding trauma. When they get to a certain age, perhaps they’ve withstood enough to think they can withstand anything; that, or they’ve full enough lives that the notion of death doesn’t frighten them anymore. (At least, not until they’re staring it right in the face.)
Our Man faces a number of setbacks, none of which are at all unbelievable. Those first few minutes are troubling enough, with Redford wading through water on the Virginia Jean; already all seems lost, and we wonder how the hell he’s going to stay afloat for even one more day, let alone eight. All Is Lost is not as edge-of-your-seat gripping as Gravity, though it grows more involving as it unfolds; nor do we come to know Our Man as well as we know Captain Phillips. Redford’s character is a little more resigned to his fate than these other characters — as we may guess from the title — and we’re less certain of his survival.
This is a story about an old man and the sea — a story that’s been told many, many times over, with the sea often winning. It would be a very different film if writer/director J.C. Chandor had cast someone thirty years younger, because a man at that age is not prepared to die. Neither is Our Man, but we get the sense that it’s primarily because he doesn’t want to be beaten, and doesn’t want to be proven wrong. He wants it to be on his terms. The movie’s scrappy, mainstream-bucking aesthetic is similarly stubborn — no talking, no flashbacks, and only the sketchiest outline of a main character. Like a crotchety old dude who heads into the Indian Ocean on a sailboat himself, ignoring warnings, muttering, “To hell with what you people think!”, All Is Lost isn’t here for your love, it’s here for your respect. J.C. Chandor is going to make this movie his way, dammit. And get off his lawn!
While that may make All Is Lost sound like some pretty bitter medicine — Amour H2O — it goes down rather smoothly. I’ll admit to being a bit disenchanted in those early scenes, but as Redford’s predicament becomes more dire, the film won me over bit by bit. I stopped wishing that the film had opened with Redford saying farewell to his family to give us a little context, or that we even see a picture of them. I no longer wondered, “Would this be better if someone else was on the boat with him?” I didn’t even ask, “Why the fuck isn’t he swearing?” The film does make a few concessions for the audience, including some rather gorgeous underwater shots (as the ocean predators grow increasingly menacing) and a lovely score by Alexander. I can’t discuss the ending without spoiling whether or not it lives up to its title, except to say that it both does and doesn’t — but I did find it haunting.
Some years, Redford’s turn in All Is Lost might be a shoo-in at the Oscars. Unfortunately, in 2013, he has some competition. He’ll likely lose the “Hollywood star in peril on the sea” vote to Tom Hanks, since he’s in a more mainstream-friendly film that more people have seen, and because the last five minutes of Captain Phillips are pretty juicy, performance-wise, whereas Redford remains rather understated. That leaves Redford with the “senior citizen we don’t see too often these days” vote, which he’ll be splitting with Nebraska‘s Bruce Dern. But Robert Redford has already gotten his due from the Academy (though for directing, not acting) and the world at large, whereas Bruce Dern is rather unsung. (Strange sidenote, though — Redford has been nominated only once as an actor, for The Sting. Rather surprising for the George Clooney of yesteryear.) If I had to place my bets between the two, I’d put my money on Dern.
It’s not all political. Dern has a showier, scene-stealing performance. (Redford can’t exactly steal scenes when there’s nobody else on screen.) Alexander Payne’s Nebraska isn’t exactly a likely blockbuster, either, but it is more of a crowd-pleaser than All Is Lost. While in many ways it’s just as melancholy as All Is Lost, what lingers afterward is the comedy in the clever script by Bob Nelson, as well as Dern’s unforgettable performance as Woody Grant, a man who is both demented and lucid somehow. He’s not “cute” the way many crazy old cinematic coots tend to be; he’s lost most of his marbles, but it still holding onto a few. It’s a depressingly realistic portrait of a half-senile senior citizen, despite the comedic accoutrement.
We meet Woody as he’s en route from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska — on foot. He’s soon intercepted by the police, but it’s far from the last time he’ll attempt this journey. Gradually it becomes obvious that stubborn old Woody will never stop setting out on this quest, so his youngest son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him there. The Holy Grail Woody seeks is a million dollars, which has been promised to him in the mail. It’s a scam, which is immediately obvious to everyone in the film but Woody, but of course, old people fall for such things all the time. It’s amazing the way human beings hold onto some of their faculties while certain clarities just fall by the wayside. Money, especially, gets very confusing for the elderly — maybe because of inflation, maybe because expenses change as we age, maybe because approaching death means divvying up their assets amongst loved ones, maybe because they’re no longer working for it. We worry about money all of our lives, and even in the bitter end — even if we’re imagining it — it’s there, mocking us.
“Life sucks, and then you die.” I’ve never cared for that flippant observation, and I wouldn’t seriously call it the theme of Nebraska. But it kind of is. Woody’s a hard drinker who cheated on his wife with at least one woman. He has a tenuous relationship with his sons. He never amounted to much. What he wants out of life — a new truck — isn’t much, and he still can’t attain it. David isn’t faring much better — he shills home entertainment systems and has been dumped by his girlfriend (who, when we meet her, doesn’t come off all that great to begin with). His older brother Ross (Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk, playing it slightly less slick) is better off, but only marginally. Can anyone be happy in Billings, Montana? Or Nebraska, for that matter?
You could argue that Nebraska has a pretty condescending view of Middle America. I wouldn’t argue otherwise. But I’m not convinced that it’s Middle America rather than America itself. David’s extended family turns out to live even humbler lives than he does. They’re more content, maybe, but also dim-witted. Cruelly or not, Payne does accurately (though exaggeratedly) peg a certain slice of American pie here — the unambitious and small-minded people you often do find in small towns like Hawthorne, Nebraska.
Alexander Payne is from Omaha, so perhaps he’s earned the right to skewer his homeland. Many of us can relate to the oddities of our country bumpkin cousins, how certain family members have nothing in common but blood. David hasn’t seen his extended family since he was a child, and it’s immediately obvious why — it’s painfully, uproariously awkward when they get together, and eccentric Woody no longer seems like the craziest guy in the room. It’s difficult to be both bleak and hilarious in the same moment, but Payne manages it.
On the surface, Nebraska is simple — at first it may seem even too simple — but there are many layers underneath. As news of Woody’s “winnings” is ill-advisedly shared, greedy friends and family members come out of the woodwork looking for a handout that may or may not be earned. (Several claim to have loaned Woody money, but who knows for sure?) No one in this movie is anything close to rich, but they’re all obsessed with money once even the mention of a million dollars is made. To them, it sounds like a billion. (Clearly they missed Justin Timberlake’s speech in The Social Network about how a million dollars is no longer cool.) There’s also a lot of nuance in David and Woody’s father-and-son dynamic — the film’s final shot says it all. Ultimately, what we walk away with is a story about life itself — we’re all aging, and in a way, we all go on the same journey. We’ll all lose our minds one way or another. We’ll all become irrelevant. We’ll die still wanting something, however silly that thing might be. With all this existential trauma popping up in our minds, it’s a wonder that the film manages to be so funny along the way. But it is.
Nebraska is Alexander Payne’s second film dealing explicitly with aging, and one of several set in Nebraska. It’s shot in black-and-white, and not the crisp, strikingly cinematic black-and-white you’ll see in Schindler’s List or The Man Who Wasn’t There, but a drab, muddy-looking one. The aesthetic has several effects — most obviously, to render Nebraska as dull and lifeless as Kansas was in The Wizard Of Oz. Some would argue that black-and-white is a filmmaker’s bid to be taken seriously and show off — to add a coat of pretense to an otherwise standard picture. But I’d wager that in Nebraska and a couple other notable black-and-white releases from 2013, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the choice is actually meant as a bid to be taken less seriously. As if to say: “We’re kinda just playing around here, guys!” For all its grappling with heavy issues, Nebraska is, at heart, a comedy with a whimsical score and an unstoppable lead character who is never trying to be funny, but nearly always is. A color film with a brown palette would have felt more “real,” and perhaps be even more of a downer. All Alexander Payne films mix pathos with biting humor — from Election to About Schmidt to Sideways — but Nebraska is never as rooted in reality as, say, The Descendants. The black-and-white gives us a bit of remove from this world, making it impossible to ignore that this is all being presented to us. We’re outside of it rather than immersed in it.
The effect that has (on me, anyway) is that it makes Nebraska feel like an instant classic. The small-town Americana, complete with a rather broad villainous turn by Stacy Keach, is reminiscent of something like It’s A Wonderful Life. (Old black-and-white movies, like this one, also tend to be grayer rather than have stark contrast between the black and white.) At the same time, there are some strikingly modern touches, like Woody’s foul-mouthed wife Kate, played by June Squibb (who also played Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt, but survives longer here). The muted cinematography masks the fact that this might be Payne’s most visual film — like a memorable, almost Wes Andersonian shot of Forte and a bunch of senior family members watching TV in roughly the same flannel shirt. There are other visual flourishes, from the telling final shot to Dern’s epically mad hairdo, which is practically worthy of its own spin-off.
The result is a hybrid, both a throwback and very modern day, just like Nebraska itself. The people of Hawthorne seem rather backwards to the kind of people who would pay to see a black-and-white Alexander Payne movie in theaters (I wonder if Nebraska will even play in Nebraska). But we’re all Americans, all existing in the same time, even if some of us choose to live and think in a way that feels more like 1946 than 2013. The people of Hawthorne drink in mom-and-pop taverns, own farms, and think it’s breaking news when a millionaire might be in their midst. (They still have a town newspaper! Who says print is dead?) The black-and-white cinematography makes this feel at once like a beloved old classic and a skewering present tense satire. Some will complain that it feels a bit too cutesy and quaint, insubstantial. It does, in ways, have the simplicity and neatness of a great short film. The climax is utterly satisfying and a total delight.
For my money, Nebraska is Payne’s best film at least since Election, and certainly one of the most essential of his filmography despite its surface smallness. It’s the kind of film you can only make before you’re successful or after you’ve been nominated for multiple Oscars, because no one wants to finance a black-and-white small-town dramedy whose biggest stars are Laura Dern’s dad and a former cast member from SNL. As Chandor was in making All Is Lost, Payne is being willfully stubborn here, isolating people who won’t see a black-and-white indie (exactly the kind of people this film is about). The movie has Woody Grant’s scrappy spirit, going his way or the highway, common sense be damned. There’s some weak acting in the mix, thanks to folksy unknowns I expect are not professional actors. But that’s made up for by a perfectly adequate Forte, along with likely future Oscar nominees Bruce Dern and the scene-stealing June Squibb. (She flashes a tombstone!)
Neither Nebraska nor All Is Lost was made with dollar signs in mind, or else they’d be more genial movies. Like the grumpy old protagonists that star in them, they are mule-headedly going at their own pace in their own direction, even if it kills them.
However, that path just might lead them to the Oscars.