Release Date: November 15, 2013 (Limited)
Director: Alexander Payne
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 8/10
At first glance it would look like Alexander Payne’s films are often about depressing subject matter. Abortion, popularity, retirement, middle age and saying goodbye to a loved one are just some of the themes he’s explored over the last seventeen years. While featuring some humorous moments mixed into the very human drama they have always been about the characters. His last film The Descendants was a powerful and moving drama about family. His latest film Nebraska explores themes of family and growing older but doesn’t achieve the same emotional level of his previous films.
Woody Grant, an aging boozer, has just become a millionaire or at least he believes he has. He needs to collect or lose out so he makes his way from Montana to Nebraska…on foot. He doesn’t get very far when he is picked up by the police while on the freeway and his estranged son David is called in to take him home. Having trouble convincing his father this is nothing more than a magazine subscription scam he decides to take him there which his mother doesn’t approve of. While on the road they find themselves in Woody’s hometown and David begins to learn things and see sides of his father he has never before seen.
Payne continues to get outstanding performances from his lead actors. Bruce Dern gives an award-worthy performance as Woody Grant. He is a man of few words but speaks volumes when he isn’t saying anything. He strikes a nice balance where the viewer is left to wonder if this man is going senile, is simply aloof or just doesn’t know how to interact with people. Will Forte, someone not known for dramatic work, does an excellent job as David Grant. Despite his father’s predicament he still loves and cares enough about the man to put up with his shenanigans. He does a good job of conveying the dilemma of knowing that his father may be on
a downward spiral but wants to help him even if it means following him on his pipe dream. Forte and Dern have solid chemistry that truly lends to the poignancy of the father-son relationship. Not to be forgotten June Squibb steals the film as Kate Grant, a cantankerous, frank, straight shooter of an old-bitty that one could ever expect to meet. Bob Odenkirk is good as Ross Grant, the news anchor brother and Stacey Keach is solid as Ed Pegram, an old family friend.
Payne chose to shoot this film in black and white and thanks to the cinematography of Phedon Papamichael it really helps to set the mood for the film. The film really captures the bleakness of the environment and gives the tense dramatic moments some grittiness and heft. Breaking from tradition Payne did not write the screenplay for this film. Written by first-time feature film screenwriter Bob Nelson he has created some memorable characters and has written many great scenes that make up this slow but ultimately rewarding journey. Two stand outs both involve confrontations that felt awkward, sad and quite real.
Nebraska is a very well done comedy-drama that is very much in Payne’s wheelhouse. Interspersed with the comedy are many poignant scenes that could easily strike a chord with viewers who have lived or witnessed such things. It’s not as good as Payne’s last several films but it is still very much worth seeing especially for the performance of Bruce Dern.