Alexander Payne is a bit of an odd director. I’ve likened him in the past to the Coen Brothers, although he’s not quite as good as them since no one is as good as them. Like them, his movies are quintessentially American even in an age of increased globalization; he has a talent for writing characters who are awful people but still sympathetic and he manages to handle swerves between pathos and dark comedy that would wreck most movies. One of the main differences however (aside from the Coens occasional dips into weirdness for weirdness’ sake) is that Payne’s movies tend to be smaller and less intense, which can turn off people used to more gripping movies. Still he’s an incredibly talented writer and director and while Nebraska isn’t quite his best work, it’s still one of the most oddly engaging movies of the year.
The plot is centered on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an alcoholic and increasingly senile old man living in Montana, who receives a bogus letter claiming he’s won a million dollars, which he takes at face value. After repeated attempts to walk to the titular Nebraska to claim his prize money, his son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him there essentially to get him to shut up. Along the way they stop in Woody’s old hometown over the weekend for an impromptu family reunion and David begins to get to know his father better.
The kind of movie it most closely resembles is the kind of aimless ‘family gets together and airs out their history’ movie that tend to crop up a lot in late November and early December, but it’s a little smarter than that. Payne has a talent for evoking the feeling of different parts of America and here he manages to effortlessly immerse you in the stifling smallness of the middle South. His ability to sum up moods, emotions or even characters in single shots or in a handful of well chosen lines of dialogue is on full display.
Even the odd choice to shoot the film in black and white works for this, as it not only evokes the feeling of a bygone era, which not only plays heavily into the films’ themes, but also allows the world to feel empty and drained of life. In a lot of ways it’s much less about the money or even the family, but about pouring over the broken detritus of Woody’s long life. All of this is buoyed by an incredible screenplay, and one of the first that Payne hasn’t worked on personally (and also his first since Citizen Ruth, all the way back in 1996, that isn’t based on a book).
A lot of this is on Bruce Dern to sell and he’s pretty brilliant, and it’s a shame that his performance is probably too restrained to have a chance of an Oscar nod (also Best Actor is probably going to be pretty packed as far as I can tell). His character is paradoxically both a bad father but not entirely a bad person and it’s a hard trick to pull off both believably, especially since much of the POV is from the victim of much of his abuse (IE his son). He’s also playing one of the more realistic and as a result quietly tragic personifications of senility I’ve seen in film recently.
Forte is a little less interesting but his performance holds up well, emphasizing not only his irritation at his father’s stubbornness and senility, but also his empathy when he realizes his father is being taken advantage of. A lot of the secondary and tertiary actors do well in that secondary/tertiary way (IE fulfilling the minor roles without drawing too much of the focus away from the other actors) but special mention has to go to June Squibb as Woody’s long suffering (and occasionally completely inappropriate) wife.
Honestly, I’m having trouble coming up with any complaints that aren’t nitpicks. I’d say it’s hard to believe that so many people buy that Woody has won that much money, but the script and actors sell it so believably I can’t honestly say that’s a complaint. I guess that at just under 2 hours, some people might find it on the short side for an Oscar Season movie, but it fills that length pretty well. Maybe the ending is a tiny bit anti-climactic, but it’s not a bad ending, just a quiet one. Put quickly, Nebraska is one of the best movies currently in theaters and a front runner for one of the best movies of the year.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and this movie has the best use of it’s single PG-13 compliant ‘F**k’ I’ve seen all year.
-funny, entertaining and engaging
-well written, directed and acted
-unique style and presentation