Father and son, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte) Grant, embark on a
roadtrip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the million
dollars that Woody is convinced is owed to him from a piece of junkmail marketing
that he receives in the post. Their already fairly frayed relationship is put
to the test as David is forced to indulge his father's fantasies and
monosyllabic gruffness – and that's before the two make a stop in the small
town where Woody grew up and parts of his family still live.
What we thought:
Nebraska hits squarely on two of director Alexander Payne's favourite
subjects: cross-country roadtrips and complicated family dynamics and it does
so with all the deadpan humour, strong characterization and broiling if
understated emotion on which he has built his reputation as one of America's
great indie-spirited directors.
Admittedly, it would be nice to see him return to some of the bitter satire
of Election but Nebraska still serves as a typically brilliant companion piece
to About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants as it touches on many of the
same themes and does so with all the same compassion and wry wit. Touching on
themes of ageing, loss, familial bonds, long-term romantic relationships,
economic desolation and ultimately on finding meaning and purpose in even the
most mundane aspects of life, the film is a master class in balancing some
seriously conflicting emotions and moods.
Woody and David, the two male characters at the centre of the film, are
separated by a generation and are in vastly different stages in their
respective lives but they have more in common than even their familial bonds
would suggest. In particular, both are suffering from major existential crises
that are, in effect, the primary driving forces of their preposterous journey.
While Woody is faced with obsolescence, dementia and a lifetime of past
mistakes and regrets, while David is faced with an uncertain future, an
unfulfilling professional life and a long-term romantic relationship that is
rapidly being eroded by his own fear of commitment.
Both characters are wonderfully rounded creations and are brought to vivid,
vibrant life by two actors at the top of their game. Despite working
consistently since 1960, Bruce Dern hasn't been front and centre for many, many
years and he brings all of his years as a character actor of many wildly
diverse roles to bear on a character who is weighed down by decades of his own
experiences. Will Forte, on the other hand, has largely spent his career in
comedy as a regular on Saturday Night Live for years and guest roles on more TV
comedies than seemingly anyone else ever, so his nuanced, poignant dramatic
work here is a real revelation.
This being an Alexander Payne movie, the plot is fairly simple and is there
primarily to serve the characters and the themes that Payne is intent on
exploring, but Nebraska may well have the best supporting cast of characters
yet in one of his films. While David and Woody are very much front and centre,
they are bolstered by at least a dozen beautifully rendered supporting
characters. June Squibb has gotten most of the attention as Woody's long
suffering, nagging but intensely loyal wife and she is utterly brilliant as the
film's funniest, yet most sympathetic characters. Rounding out the family, we
also have the always terrific Bob Odenkirk as David's far more successful and
put together brother, Ross, who gets the least amount of screen time of the
four but really makes the most of it.
Throughout the rest of the film we also meet Woody's extended family, as
well as the many denizens of his childhood town and though none of these are as
well rounded as the immediate Grant family, they're all memorably drawn –
whether they're despicable, stupid and opportunistic or good-hearted, warm and
sympathetic – and often very, very funny.
And then, of course, there is the most ubiquitous yet subtle characters in
the film – the locations. It's not for nothing, after all, that this film is
called Nebraska, rather than Woody and Dave and the stunning black and white
cinematography conveys both the nostalgic, ye-old-America feel of these towns
and the desolation and coldness that the 2008 recession wrought on the small
businesses that make up America's quieter and lesser known settings.
Nebraska was nominated for countless awards this past awards season and it's
easy to see why. It's a funny, melancholic and - in the most universal,
non-religious sense – deeply spiritual little masterpiece of a film that is as
sharply written as it is beautifully shot as it is expertly acted. It's great
to be able to say this about yet another Oscars-contender: you don't want to
miss this one.
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