Review: Nebraska


Alexander Payne is a no frills type of filmmaker. Everything in his palette is intended to serve the story and no excess baggage is required, apart from his characters. Fine tuning the balance between drama and comedy, Payne has a precise pulse on each of his characters and molds them into people. They aren’t always fully beholden to arcs or discovering profound truths about themselves, but they nevertheless retain their messy humanity. Returning to his beloved home state for the first time in over a decade, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is his most subdued venture to date, which may feel light on content, but fully zoned in on performances and Midwestern mood.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he’s won a million dollars. Without his drivers license, he sees no choice but to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska from Billings, Montana and retrieve his prize. Found trudging along the highway by a police officer, Woody is picked up at the police station by his son David (Will Forte). The mailed certificate that congratulates Woody is clearly a scam, but he stubbornly insists on his picking up his winnings. His marriage with his wife Kate (June Squibb) is essentially in name only, and his sons don’t think much of him. Caught in his own stagnant life, David acquiesces to his father, and sets off with him to Lincoln. As they travel through the Midwest, pieces of Woody’s past come to the fore, especially when the two pass through his hometown, where extended family want in on the old man’s newfound fortune.

Nebraska is the first film Alexander Payne has made in which he has no credit on the screenplay, and yet much of it is in line with the rest of his filmography. The road trip reminisces Sideways and the misgivings of Woody recall About Schmidt. The first few scenes of the film sputter a bit and don’t quite coalesce smoothly, but once it hits the road, the narrative is able to ease into its relaxed rhythms. A few other narrative detours with perhaps one too many people distracts from Woody’s story, but every time Bruce Dern returns to the spotlight, he never disappoints. Dern has long been victim of drawing the short straw amongst the class of great actors to emerge from the 1970s, but here he finally proves his full worth. At a loss for having a full grasp of the world around him and knowing that mortality is on the doorstep, Dern portrays Woody in slow decay, self loathing yet quietly compassionate towards his family. Will Forte also impresses, playing outside of his comedic comfort zone and harnessing David’s dejection, seeing his potential miserable future in his father’s hunkered form. As David’s brother Ross, Bob Odenkirk provides some of the film’s chuckles, most of which are often stolen by June Squibb’s humorously unfiltered Kate.

Though Alexander Payne tends to be light on style, there is one obvious element that distinguishes Nebraska from his other films: black and white. Indeed, the monochrome photography at first does little to enhance the film up until David and Woody begin their travels. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael does find many occasions for contrasts, but it is most fascinating when the grays awash the frame,  communicating the dreary atmosphere of the countryside. Other than the photography, Payne isn’t particularly fussy with any of the other technical elements, all of which are proficient enough to support the story. That is not to say that Payne’s direction is lacking, as he pulls off several scenes with remarkable patience coupled with his quick wit. By its modest conclusion, Nebraska doesn’t necessarily achieve any major catharsis, especially as a few seemingly key pieces of backstory fall by the wayside. Regardless, Payne is clearly content to be at home, and he has no trouble making the audience comfortable with him.


~ by romancinema on November 16, 2013.

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