Friday, December 6, 2013

Film Review- Nebraska

A very difficult shift occurs when people age. Parents begin to have memory, physical, and comprehension issues starting to lean on their children in the same way that their offspring used to lean on them. Director Alexander Payne's Nebraska tells the tale of an aging Korean War vet who receive a You May be A Millionaire letter, believes it and is determined to go from his home in Billings Montana to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his prize.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) does not have much going on in is life. He is in constant battles with his wife Kate (June Squibb). His two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) turned out average in his eyes, he is not allowed to drink, his prized pick up truck no longer works and his former business partner borrowed his air compressor 40 years ago and never returned it. However his fortunes have changes as he has a letter stating that he has won a Million Dollars and a new goal to head to Lincoln to collect the money. Payne presents a gripping tale of the dynamics of family relationships a mixed with the often complex web of cousins Aunts and Uncles. A true road film, Payne takes every opportunity to show off the Midwestern landscape.

After several individual attempts to escape his home and head to Lincoln on foot Woody asks his younger son David to drive him. His wife Kate thinks they are both crazy but is happy to get her husband out of the house.  David has his own reasons wanting to spend a few days alone with his Dad as he is aging and may not have a lot of more opportunities. He also has no reason to stay in town as he is working in a dead end stereo sales job and his longtime girlfriend has just moved out. The pair head out from Billings passing through Wyoming and South Dakota before ending up in Woody's home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska where most of his brothers still reside along with many other townsfolk he knows from his youth.

Payne decided to shot the film in black and white that works well with the subject matter. The shooting choice really showed the barrenness of the plains moreover monochrome gives the film a depression era feel especially with the repeated subject of the downturn in the economy and the effect on farming and rural communities is discussed in the piece.

Writer Bob Nelson produced a clear screenplay featuring very understandable characters. The film is not cluttered by unnecessary dialogue. Many scenes are vertically silent, feature one or two word responses or even a grunt or a Huh as a response to a question. David's Aunt Martha delivers a telling line when she remarks that the Grant brothers are men of few words. The script also features several delightful exchanges about ordinary events. One being David's Hawthorne cousins Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray) badgering him about how long it took to drive from home Billings to Hawthorne.  The other standout is between two of the Uncles about an Impala that turned out to be a Buick a car that was supposed to run forever but is no longer around because it stopped running.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael returns to work with Payne for the third time. This time out he as the vast landscape of the Midwestern United States and the vibrant tones of black and white as his canvas. The shots as Woody and David drive to Nebraska are stunning. Perhaps some of Papamichaels best work on the film is the night time shots that focus on the incandescent lighting of motel and bar signs. The production features several postcard shots of the American plains. The best transition shot occurs when Woody visits the Grant homestead that has fallen into disrepair but Woody notes as he stairs out the second floor window of his patents room that the barn is still standing. The camera zooms in on the barn then pulls out to show Woody and David in the lower left corner of the frame outside in front of the barn staring at the vast acreage of the former Grant farmland.

Bruce Dern gives a career marking performance as Woody. He drifts in and out of reality, speaks sparsely and is constantly in search of his next beer. Dern is on screen for most of the film his wild hair combined with, barren Midwest settlings plus his prodigal return to his home town make him appear to be a profit of the Great Plains. June Squibb is a standout as his wife Kate. She speaks her mind, hold's nothing back and after years of putting up with Woody's drinking and nonsense this latest scheme to collect the supposed sweepstakes winnings is the last straw. Squibb takes on all comers in her immediate and extend family. Her best work is in a scene at the Lutheran cemetery where the Grant's are buried. She moves from grave to grave enlightening David of the less flattering qualities of his departed relatives. When David asks if any or her relatives are buried here she snaps they are over at the Catholic Cemetery as no Catholic we be caught dead next to all these Lutherans.  Will Forte is steady as David Grant. He is the calm voice amongst all of the bizarre activity in the film. Bob Odenkirk of Breaking Bad fame is very good but underused as older brother Ross.

John Jackson did great work in the casting department. Many of the characters in the film were local theatre performers and non actors. To cast several of the older towns people the crew placed adds in local areas encouraging residents to take videos of their retired farmer parents and send them in. Through this process the production filled some roles which really give the film an authentic feel by including performers with the correct local dialect.

Nebraska is a well done expertly shot film with minimal dialogue that moves at a fast pace.  The film features several strong performances that are destined to be recognized at awards season. It's a very watchable take on Midwestern life from a Director that's a Nebraska native. It's a film that I can strongly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4

Nebraska | Alexander Payne | U.S.A. | 2013 | 155 Minutes.

Tags: Road Movie, Father & Son, Dementia, Alcoholism, Plains, Farming, Mechanic,  Korean War Midwest.

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