Sunday, 8 December 2013

Film Review: Nebraska (2013)

Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb

Nebraska is unmistakably an Alexander Payne picture and in being so we get exactly what we’ve come to expect from the film maker, but never have his films looked as good as this one. Shot in stark black and white evoking the look of such classic American pictures like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and Lenny, Payne has made one of the most enjoyable and utterly watchable films of the year.

From the opening shot of Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant walking along the highway to begin a 900 mile journey from Nebraska to Montana, Payne film looks stunning in its simplicity; just real locations and real people showing that real life can be more interesting than any CGI created universe. This is one of Payne’s better films and like all his films, characters take centre stage and in Nebraska we have Woody Grant and his son David (Will Forte) taking to the road on an aimless mission to ‘collect’ a million dollar prize he knows is a scam but does it to make his father happy.

The beauty of the story lies in how this road trip brings father and son together and the characters we are introduced to along the way. I never been to this part of America nor do I have a large family, but the scenes where the Grant’s spend time with Woody’s family in Hawthorne, Nebraska, rung true to even me. Men sit around in an almost catatonic state, barely talking, and listening even less which emphasises the film’s running theme of communication. No one listens when David keeps telling them that Woody isn’t rich and it’s all a scam, but the townsfolk don’t want to either know or believe him. Payne shows Nebraska as willing something to happen to one of their own, regardless of the truth, and paints it as a forgotten land, living in the past. It’s a love letter to the state he was born in, but he shows it as he knows it to be true and we are happy to take that trip with his characters.

The film includes several of the themes and characteristics of Payne’s filmography. Affairs, communities, family, male identity, growing old, and discovering one’s self are common place in his films, especially after 1999’s Election (still, for me, his best film to date) but Nebraska is more like Sideways in tone than About Schmidt or The Descendents as it balances comedy and pathos with real skill, without either one taking over the film.

This is helped a great deal by the usual great casting his films have, and Bruce Dern gives one of the best performance of the year by making Woody truly feel like a man who has grown up in Nebraska and is part of his hometown. Payne has said before that the 1970s have defined his film making style (which shows in Nebraska more than any of his previous films) which was a period “where acting style more approximates real life and is relatively free of contrivance and device” and this is certainly true of all performances in his latest film. It’s a sheer joy to watch.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Dern’s performance, the beautiful photography, the classic Payne script, and superb score by Mark Orton (well worth downloading) make Nebraska a thoroughly enjoyable film and one which deserves contention for a place on 2013’s ‘best of’ list.

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