Review: ‘Nebraska’ (NYFF 2013)

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Nebraska | Alexander Payne | November 22, 2013


Alexander Payne takes us on a road trip to his home state of Nebraska, where the land has just as much presence as the film’s characters. We see David (Will Forte) a man struggling with his love life and working an underwhelming job selling speakers. His father Woody (Bruce Dern) is starting to lose it, wandering by himself alongside Montana’s highways, believing a notice that he’s won a million dollars. He travels alone because he truly believes that he’s won, despite the fact that it’s clearly a bogus scam.

No matter what David’s mother Kate (June Squibb) or brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) do to try and get the “million dollars” off of Woody’s mind, Woody continues to try and sneak out of his house in hope that he will walk all the way from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect the prize, and buy a truck.

It’s not until Woody rightfully points out that David truly has nothing of importance happening in his life that David decides to take his father to Lincoln in order to help his father find his dignity. Only they decide to return to Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up. It’s a 750-mile journey that slowly brings David and Woody closer, despite how hard to handle Woody can be. He loves his drinks, and his mind isn’t always there.

They stay at David’s aunt’s house until Kate and Ross can meet up with them so they all catch up as a family. Only, once news of Woody’s supposed good fortune spreads and spirals out of control, it seems like all of Woody’s family members and old friends (there’s a great villanous role for Stacy Keach here) seem to suddenly appear in hopes of getting a piece. This understandably creates a lot of problems for the family that become too much to handle. But throughout the experience they come closer as a family, as we see David discover bits and pieces about his fathers life that he never knew about before. He realizes he only had a piece of his father’s life down, and Nebraska is linking all the missing pieces all at once.

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The script, written by Bob Nelson, is handled with a slow grinding heartfelt passion that has more than its fair share of dark comedic moments that are brutally hilarious. Nelson’s script is captured by Payne beautifully in black and white cinemascope that really mirrors the hearty American Midwest feel of the script.

Bruce Dern is magnificent as Woody, playing the role with a sense of fragility and frailness that you slowly learn to sympathize with as you get to know him better. He is every bit awards worthy in the role. Will Forte floored me with a great subdued performance that was exactly what the role called for. He shows that he has dramatic acting chops that will hopefully bring out more serious dynamic roles for him in the near future. June Squibb absolutely steals the show during the films second half, in a darkly comedic performance that came out of left field, but had me laughing non stop along the way. Bob Odenkirk does great work as always in a minor role that adds to their already interesting family dynamic.

It’s little things such as Payne’s ability to naturally let the camera stick on a particular character or moment in order to get the most out of the scene that make him such a great director. A return trip to Woody’s childhood home and him saying that there’s no one here to hit him like they did when he was a child, is simply heartbreaking, and has a lot to do with Payne’s effect as a director on such a great performance delivered by Dern. Or shots such as when we see an old love of Woody’s see him for the first time in years and Payne just lets the camera rest on her letting all the emotions run their course on her face. It’s all Alexander Payne finding ways to get the most out of what he has. His use of black and white almost seems necessary upon reflection. I can’t imagine the film in color.

There’s something about Nebraska that just felt right along the way. Watching the father and son slowly come closer as they experience pain and heartbreak along the way that acts as a learning experience that will change their lives forever. It’s got plenty of dark humor to keep things balanced, and there is not a wasted shot or performance in any way. Everything about Nebraska just feels right, creating one of the most moving and effective films of this year.

Rating: 9.0/10