January 12, 2014

Movie Review: Nebraska

There is definitely something special about Nebraska, the latest feature from Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election). The nearest I can call it is a slice of life dramedy. There are distinct dramatic and comedic elements to it, but it does not have any traditional plot elements. It is a movie that you watch and experience but cannot expect to have any big plot to follow or climactic closure. Basically, it is no Lone Survivor, which has a distinct plot to follow. Not that anyone would ever mistake Nebraska for Lone Survivor, but I think you see where I am coming from.

The story is pushed forward by an elderly man named Woody (Bruce Dern) being convinced that he won a million dollars. Not being the sort to trust the mail and being of an age and state that is not conducive to driving, he begins to walk from Billings, MT, to Lincoln, NE, where the office is said to be so he can collect his winnings. Of course, it is actually a scam, you know the sort that try to sell you magazines. Still, he will not be swayed from his belief.

In order to help satisfy his father and prove that it really is a scam, Woody's son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive him to Lincoln. David is a nervous, jittery sort who always seems to live in the shadow of his father's issues. Woody was a heavy drinker and a kind man who people would take advantage of, it seems that David lives apologetically, always trying to make up for and watch out for his father. The result is that his life is stuck in neutral, working a dead end job and just existing.

Anyway, on their way to Lincoln the two get sidetracked and end up back in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, also in Nebraska. This is where the bulk of the movie takes place as word of Woody's “winnings” spreads like wildfire and people come crawling out of the woodwork looking for a handout. We are also privy to details about Woody's younger days, all of which is a revelation to David.

That is really all there is to it. It is a simple film about simple people, which some have taken as satire or making fun of small Middle America towns. That would be a mistake, while I feel there is definitely a certain level of stylization, I do not feel any of it was intended to mock or make light of the people who live in these sort of towns. It strikes me as a look at places hit hard by the state of the economy, the desolation, the boarded up shops. It adds to the tone. We are also faced with an aging community whose inhabitants come from a different era and do not communicate the way the younger folks do.

Nebraska is a marvel of writing, it sports a fantastic screenplay delivered perfectly by its cast. There is something about watching these people that is fascinating. It also helps that Will Forte offers an interesting “in” to the story as he seems as left on the outside by much of it as we are. In the end, the movie sees a it of catharsis as father and son find a common ground and gain a better understanding of each other. It is subtle and it works. And it has to be mentioned that June Squibb has some fantastic moments as Woody's wife, Kate.

This may be my favorite film from director Alexander Payne (and is world's better than his last film, The Descendants) and he does a good job with first time feature film screenwriter Bob Nelson's screenplay. Add in the gorgeous black and white cinematography and you have an film that stands out from the crowd and deserves a lot of attention, although I think the very things that make it great and make it stand out will be the same things that will keep the mainstream audience away. I hope I am wrong.

Highly Recommended.

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