Bruce Dern received his second Oscar nomination for portraying Woody Grant in Nebraska.
Bruce Dern plays the father Woody Grant in a performance that is a departure from the roles in which he is most often cast. Dern was usually the go to character actor for intense somewhat crazy men like in his previous Oscar nominated performance in Coming Home, or even his more recent cameo in Django Unchained. This is a far more restrained performance from Dern and he seems completely comfortable in such a role. Although by the nature of the film this might seem like the type of performance dependent most on something simplistic, but actually it seems like Dern probably put a great deal of effort into this performance. You definitely do not notice this effort though and that is one of the strengths of this performance.
Dern's performance actually takes great steps to create Woody as a very particular man who has lived a life. We don't just come on any old man we come on Woody Grant which starts from the first image of the film which shows Woody lumbering down the street in an attempt to walk his way to Nebraska to redeem his"winning" ticket. Dern sets up Woody not as just an old man here but most certainly an old man who has long sense been in his prime. Dern depicts Woody as a particularly retiring man who seems absolutely set into a certain place into his life. Before we even see one of the reasons for this state Dern actually has already completely established it in his physical approach in portraying Woody.
One of the factors that sets Woody in this place is his wife (June Squibb) who rarely has too many positive things to say about Woody constantly saying various things that do put him down in some way or another. This form of verbal abuse can be seen in Dern's performance in a most interesting fashion. Dern does not show Woody really react to any of his wife's various barbs toward him in anyway, but Dern instead shows their very long marriage through the fact that Woody always seems at least slightly defeated at all times. What Dern does is make Woody the man who has spent years and years of this sort of abuse from his wife, and it is part of what has shaped him in this way. For him to react to her would be wrong as he's heard it all before.
Woody is not an especially well man and it is obvious that his mind is going as well as many other things including his hearing, and Dern is extremely effective in portraying all this as Woody. There is nothing anything obvious in the way Dern handles this, and the performance is completely invisible in this regard. Whenever there is one of the moments where his son (Will Forte) has to repeat something for Woody Dern conveys that deafness but as well as the certain mental disconnect perfectly. The film is set off by the ticket which Woody claims to absolutely believe even though every one else sees as fake. It could quickly become a very weak premise, but again the way Dern portrays Woody's nature allows it to be actually believable.
Dern's performance is absolutely genuine in the simplicity of Woody's belief in the ticket. Dern does not show him to be stupid really, or false in this belief either. Dern instead suggests through his calm the overall personality of Woody which is to take someone's word as face value. When Woody tells his son that he was told that he won, despite his son saying the opposite, Dern's delivery is one of pure honesty and shows the conviction of the man. It is an assurance in his simple belief that someone would not lie about such things. It is a simple belief that Dern gives the utmost conviction in its simplicity, that makes the whole basis of the film not seem like the contrivance it is.
Bruce Dern despite being the lead in the film actually does not have a whole lot of lines, and in a way is a bit like Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but without any of his dramatic monologues. Bruce Dern is in most of the scenes of the film though, and even though he is far from the loudest performance, especially compared to June Squibb and Stacy Keach or even the pretty reserved Will Forte, Dern is never overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Dern keeps Woody a very affecting figure throughout the film with his very assured portrayal of Woody's unique presence within the world. There is a palatable sadness that is never overwhelming but Dern always gives the strong sense of Woody's life.
Dern achieves an incredible balance with his performance to show the regret in the man, but also the will that would carry him to do something even if it is as foolish as going after false winnings. Dern never becomes static and has a terrific variations in his performance to either react in some way to one of the flamboyant performances, in a more entertaining way than the performances themselves, or in key dramatic moments in the film where Woody does break his silence a bit. Dern is terrific in making these outbursts purely natural. It is not when Woody talks that Dern has Woody stand up for himself, rather Dern makes a stronger impact, by making these outbursts whenever someone questions his life.
One great highlight though in terms of speaking for Dern is the scene where his son bluntly asks Woody what he wants the money for. In the scene Dern reminded me an awful lot of Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, as he gives his two fairly slight material desires and his greater want to leave his boys. Although Woody has been quiet about what he thinks of his sons, he was careful never to be cold but only a bit aloof toward them. In this moment, in his own understated way, Dern reveals the actual love Woody has for his sons. Dern still keeps Woody as well Woody, as he does not gush that would be wrong, but Dern brings such honest warmth to the moment and makes it not a change in Woody but merely revealing what was always there.
The silence never weakens a scene and Dern does not need to talk to bring the power from a scene. One scene that shows this especially well is when Woody's old "friend" Ed, played with great sleaze by Stacy Keach, bothers Woody about the money he owes him with his son around. Ed brings up an affair Woody has and explains it quickly to Woody and his son in a mostly mocking manner. Dern is excellent in the moment giving the insight into Woody's mindset of the moment without really having to say really much of anything. Dern's reaction shows Woody going right back to the time in his life and, although still quiet, Dern makes the past pain vivid. The details are sparse but Dern in his silence realizes the complexity fitting for such a problematic past episode.
My favorite moment though for Dern has to be the ending of the film when things don't turn out exactly like he wanted but he gets his truck, his air compressor, and a hat that says he won. The drive down the street is a brilliantly acted scene by Dern. The sadness of Woody eases away in this moment and Dern makes Woody's victory a truly resounding one. He is still pure Woody with his unassuming style, but Dern is incredibly endearing in the subtle but strong happiness that he suggests Woody gets from his simple little victory. I really liked this performance by Bruce Dern in all regards, and personally I found he brought the film together which could have been completely overwhelmed by the absurd flamboyance of the caricatures. Dern was mostly a supporting player, but he gets his due here and makes the most of it.