Moving on from the Oscar baiting The Descendants (by no means a bad film) Alexander Payne returns to his roots in his latest film Nebraska. Born and raised in Nebraska Payne’s film about the state he grew up in and small town, mid west America is a melancholic and poignant one.
Woodrow ‘Woody’ Grant (Bruce Dern) finds a flier promising him a reward of $1,000,000 if he travels to Lincoln to collect it. Despite the warning from his wife and two sons that the flier is a scam Woody is determined to make his way to Lincoln on foot if needs be. His constant attempts to reach Lincoln and his absent mindedness point to early signs of dementia. Realising that he not have much time to spend with his father, David (Will Forde) agrees to take his father to Lincoln to humour him and, more importantly, spend time with him. Along the way they meet Woody’s family and old friends who all reveal a little about Woody’s history. Upon learning his new found wealth they demand the money that he owes.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a moving elegy to small town America; it is a hauntingly beautiful looking film. The flat plains of Nebraska (America’s ninth most densely populated state) are gloriously shot by Phedon Papamichael (a regular contributor to Payne’s superb filmography) in startling crisp, monochrome cinematography. The plains, farm houses and barns of Nebraska that are seen outside the car window have bleak aspect to them, the black and white cinematography captures the blandness of the landscape, it seems that colour would not add much brightness to the tree free, flat landscape famed for cattle grazing.
The bleakness of the film’s cinematography isn’t matched by the central story; certainly the central story is a moving one as Woody Grant’s failing health makes it apparent that his days on Earth are reaching the very end. Woody is a man who liked a drink and would rather be left alone, much to the despair of his wife (a brilliant June Squibb). These characteristics could easily create an unsympathetic character, but there is no such issue here as Bruce Dern’s superb performance creates a highly moving character. His sense of helplessness , deteriorating health and his stubborn desire to claim that $1,000,000 dollars paints a picture of a man who was by no means perfect, but in his old, frail state a sympathetic one. The pity felt for Woody comes from Dern’s excellent performance; it keeps the audience engaged and sympathetic towards Woody when it could have so easily gone astray.
The trip to collect a nonexistent prize was never a waste as it seemed to mend broken relationships, David Grant feels closer to his dad and it becomes apparent that Kate Grant does truly love her husband (the scene in the hospital, in which she affectionately calls him ‘a big idiot’ is the film’s most touching). The scene in the hospital turns Kate Grant from a nagging, mean spirited, and gossipy wife to a heartbreaking wife who deeply loved her husband; it gave her character a purpose and a heart. Whilst June Squibb’s comedic timings are spot on perfect, it is this tender moment when Squibb is at her best. Will Forde is also superb, but he outshone by his older co-stars.
The bleak cinematography contrasts to the slightly more upbeat story which contains moments of comic gold (apparently Mount Rushmore isn’t finished because Lincoln is missing an ear). Writer Bob Nelson brilliantly intertwines comedy with pathos creating a genuinely moving and very amusing film. Nebraska is certainly leisurely paced, but it gives the viewer time to admire the aesthetics of the film as well as giving us time to engage the characters on screen. We feel a lot closer to them at the end then we did at the start of film.
Nebraska is released in UK cinemas on December 6th.