Director Alexander Payne Stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk USA 2013 Language English 1hr 55 mins Black & white
World-weary father and son road trip
Alexander Payne doesn’t appear to be a man in a hurry – he’s made six feature films since 1996, and those films don’t usually race along. His characters often seem to be struggling with depression and midlife crises, but that doesn’t stop the films from sometimes being very funny. I loved Election and Sideways, thought Citizen Ruth was OK, didn’t like About Schmidt and never got around to seeing The Descendants, partly because I was put off by a godawful trailer (I know, I know).
With Nebraska, his aim seems to be to make something like his previous films, only more so. While The Descendants took him off to colourful Hawaii, as its title announces, Nebraska brings him back (eventually) to his own state. The two central characters are a man in his seventies whose memory is going, and his middle-aged son whose life is not so much going nowhere as going backwards. It’s a film populated by taciturn, often real-looking Midwesterners. It’s filmed in grainy black and white, and visits flat landscapes and towns that might be suffering from the current economic trough, but equally might have been struggling since the Great Depression. Glamorous it ain’t.
A lot of the fuss about this film is to do with the performance of Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a cantankerous old drinker convinced he has won a million dollars in a prize draw. Dern was one of the big stars of the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, but hasn’t had much good work in a long time. And he is terrific here as the sometimes befuddled, frequently silent and occasionally sharp Woody. Will Forte plays David, the son who reluctantly agrees to drive Woody the 700 or so miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to try to claim his prize. Along the way, David decides it would be a good idea to stop by their former hometown and see the extended family. And that’s how Nebraska slides from being a road movie into one about small-town life. The Montana Grants might have their problems, but they turn out to be a dynamic and ambitious bunch compared with the ones who stayed in Nebraska. The film’s funniest characters are David’s two terrible cousins, Bart and Cole, who are fat, lazy, dumb and unpleasant.
I was surprised about how much David learns about Woody over the course of the movie. I’m not sure why that was unexpected – maybe I instinctively think that Payne is a slightly less conventional film-maker than he is. Not that slow piecing together of a life, with all its messiness and suppressed tragedies and all the rest, is a bad way for a film to spend its time. I also thought the ending was more upbeat – in its way – than some critics have suggested. Maybe what qualifies as a cheerful conclusion by my standards is a pretty bleak one by yours.
There are lots of good performances here – June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering but far from stoic wife, Bob Odenkirk (Saul from Breaking Bad) as his more successful son, and Stacy Keach, still as sinister as ever, if a little battered, as his ex-business partner and enemy, plus the massed ranks of the largely wordless, motionless Grant men.
If I have one problem with the film, it’s the music, which seems like a horrible cliché of this kind of low-key kind of film. It’s music that says ‘gentle and that little bit quirky’. Nebraska is better than that.