There is one director who is slowly rising up to be one of my favourite filmmakers working today, and that director is Alexander Payne. While I really liked his earlier films (CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT), it has been his last two films SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS that have made me truly become a fan of his work. I absolutely loved both these films and they even made my top 10 best films list in their respective years. So you can definitely say that I was excited to check out his latest film NEBRASKA (which recently was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture). Did the film manage to live up to my expectations? Yep, they sure did!
The film tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly alcoholic who keeps trying to get to Lincoln, Nebraska so that he can claim a $1 million prize in a sweepstakes prize that he won in a letter. Despite his family telling him that the money is just a scam, Woody keeps trying to escape anyway. However his estranged son David (Will Forte) decides to go against his family’s wishes and take Woody to Lincoln to collect the money. Along the way, David decides to stop in Woody’s old hometown Hawthorne, Nebraska so that meet up with Woody’s brothers and their families. However when Woody tells everyone that he won a $1 million, things start to get a little complicated.
I must admit that while NEBRASKA is as excellent as his previous two films masterpieces in my eyes, but Payne’s latest film is still an absolutely fantastic comedy/drama that I highly enjoyed from beginning to end. While it has a pretty simple premise, it’s actually very layered (which is all due to Bob Nelson’s terrific script, which is beautifully written, witty and well crafted). What I love about Payne as director is that he knows how to make films, which are essentially are stories just about people, feel honest and relatable. He truly does a terrific job once again with his direction. Even though I’ve never been there myself, the way that captures life in a small town in the Midwest felt very real and authentic to me (Payne’s home state is Nebraska, so it should be no surprise on why it does). I love the fact that he made the film in black &white. Phedon Papamichael’s b&w cinematography is absolutely stunning (particularly the shots of the country side) and it even adds another layer to the tone of the story. Funnily enough the film’s look and feel reminded me a lot of the 1972 film THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Watching it, you can tell that 70’s films were a main influence to Payne in his approach to this film. Plus he also knows how to balance comedy and drama extremely well in a subtle way that feels organic and true to life, without it ever feeling tonally uneven or heavy-handed. Also the score by Mark Norton was nicely done and well suited for the film.
However the true heart of the film, is definitely father/son relationship between the characters of “Woody” and his son “David”. They are the key element that made the film really resonant with me, it really is a story about son really getting know his father for the first time in his life. Whether it be through “David” having small conversations with “Woody”, or learning more about him from other people that he meets in their visit to Hawthorne. Payne and screenwriter Nelson do a brilliantly job crafting their relationship. However these two characters could have only really worked if Payne cast the right actors to play them, luckily he was right on the money with the two actors he chose for the film. Legendary character actor Bruce Dern does a great job playing “Woody”. Even though the character is a man of few words, he makes “Woody” very believable and he adds some interesting aspects to the role.
While I know a lot of really great actors were in-talks for this role (Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall to name a few) and they would have all done a good job, but I don’t think they would have captured “Woody” the way that Dern did in this film. In his first real dramatic performance former SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE star Will Forte really impressed me in “David”. His character is definitely the heart of the film and Forte brings a likeable every man to him. Also the supporting cast all do really job with their roles as well. However the stand out for me was veteran actress June Squibb as “Woody”s foul-mouthed wife “Kate”. She absolutely steals every scene she is in and delivers many of the film’s funniest lines/moments (the scene at the cemetery is absolutely hilarious). She is definitely one of my favourite performances in the film. Also Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk are very good in their roles as well (particularly Keach, who knows how to play an arsehole extremely well).
In terms of negatives, I must admit I don’t really have any. If I do, they very minor. The only ones can think of is that I felt that some of the actors who played in small or minor roles, weren’t really good at all and their performances came across as very amateurish (Missy Dotty, the actress who plays “David”s ex-girlfriend “Noelle” in brief scene, was one definitely stood out the most with her rather poor performance). Also there were some aspects of “Woody”s life that the film brings up, that I did wish went a little further with.
Overall despite those tiny little nit-picks, NEBRASKA is still a truly wonderful film that marks as another home run for director Alexander Payne. If you loved any of his previous films, you will enjoy this one as well. In my opinion, it is very well deserved of the Oscar nominations that it received.
– Bede Jermyn