n e b r a s k a
6th December 2013
3rd December 2013
I have a soft spot for Alexander Payne, mostly born out of About Schmidt, a superbly unflinching look at ageing relationships. Subsequent films have divided people that I have discussed them with. Sideways seemed to annoy as many as it delighted and The Descendants didn’t quite make the impact I thought it should have, despite having George Clooney and a fantastic debut from Shailene Woodley. Discovering that his latest brought back the wonderful June Squibb from her early exit in Schmidt was a happy moment for me.
Nebraska comes pre-recommended from it’s Cannes performance earlier in the year where star Bruce Dern took home the best actor award and Payne was nominated for the Palm d’Or. Telling the tale of a irascible OAP Woodford Grant (Dern) who, on receiving a clearly bogus notification of a $1 million dollar win, decides to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. The family Grant are unsure of how to deal with this sudden obsession. Opinions vary between son Ross and mother Kate (both wanting to put Woody in a home) and son David who thinks it better to indulge the old man rather than remove his newfound drive. Having no answer to Woody’s challenge ‘Why don't you take me? What else you got on?’, David resolves to drive the old man to the sham lottery’s office to prove there is no money. In the best road trip fashion, things quickly go awry and soon the entire family are re-discovering the joys of old hometown Hawthorn.
Filmed in grainy, sweeping black and white, Payne makes the best use of the wonderful, bleak landscape of the midwest but despite the wide open spaces, this is very much an intimate movie. Once the family re-assemble in Hawthorn, we are treated to old friends and even older relatives coming out of the woodwork, some very keen on helping Woody spend his fortune and some just happy to see an old face that many presumably had forgotten existed.
Much has been made of Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody and it is deserved praise. It’s difficult to avoid calling this the performance of a lifetime but it very probably is. It will be a strong contender indeed that usurps him for the best actor Oscar come March. Dern is pitch perfect as the grumpy, taciturn, almost beaten old man. On a couple of occasions David (a strong performance from Will Forte but very much in Dern’s shadow) hears described how his father was a soft touch back in the day and Dern’s performance is very much of a man who did right by too many people who didn’t return the favour. A committed drinker, Woody’s illness is never defined but he carries the confused look of somebody who probably enjoyed more than they should for longer than they should.
Payne’s way of exposing the past isn’t the apocalyptic, highly emotional route that many directors may have taken, he has a far more naturalistic way of dealing with these things and they resonate far more because of this. David’s revelation to his father that yes, he stole the booze from the garage but no, he didn’t drink it, he poured it away because he was sick of seeing his father drunk is powerful despite being relatively underplayed - there is no grandstanding here. Again, this comes back to Dern’s performance - Woody is a man almost tired of living to the point where most things beyond his desire for a new truck don’t matter.
But it’s not all Dern. June Squibb is an absolute revelation as his long suffering wife. Initially introduced berating her husband for being too dumb to realise he couldn’t walk to Lincoln, it’s not until later in the film on her arrival in Hawthorn that she really shines. What could easily have been a stereotypical dominant wife shows us far more than that. We gradually come to understand why these two have been together for the time they have and why it’s worked for that long. Squibb completely nails the balance between exasperated shouting and the more loving side of her character. This is shown perfectly when she jumps to her husband’s defence as relatives circle for a piece of the money. An expletive has rarely been delivered so viscously and so deservedly. It’s also laugh out loud funny.
Payne’s movies have a habit of dropping genuinely funny in with the deep and touching and this is the case here. Forte plays a great straight man against the spiralling situation in Hawthorn and although there’s nothing quite as hilarious as George Clooney’s run in The Descendants, there is plenty of fun to be had, particularly with the ramshackle bunch that pass for the Grant’s relatives.
As David attempts to divert his father from adding an untruthful newspaper article to the farce, he meets an old girlfriend of Woody’s, the perennial second placer. A beautiful, touching performance from Angela McEwan, Peg Nagy missed out on Woody’s life but fills David in on part of it since hidden. It’s a nicely understated scene that does well to avoid being too sentimental. As is the inevitable return to the old farmstead and the trip to the cemetery.
Nebraska is a beautiful movie that further enhances Payne’s reputation. It has an almost certain Oscar winner of a central performance and an equally superb supporting cast. Payne manages to gently mock the midwest life without ever coming across as snide (inevitably helped by his upbringing in the area) and his exploration of family life across the generations manages to seem fresh despite being well worn ground. Humorous and touching in equal measure with a bagful of wonderful images (Woody’s frequent bathroom breaks are magnificently framed by the endless midwest panorama), this is a movie you should seek out.
Check out the trailer here.