Director: Alexander Payne.
Screenplay: Bob Nelson.
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Angela McEwan, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Kevin Kunkel.
“These boys grow up staring at the rear ends of cows and pigs, it’s only natural that a real woman will get them chafing their pants“.
If he’s not already there yet, there’s no doubt that Alexander Payne is a director who’s name is fast becoming synonymous with quality. I’ve yet to see his 1996 debut “Citizen Ruth” but from “Election” in 1999 to the “The Descendants” in 2012, Payne has delivered a consistency that few directors can match. With every film, he just gets better and better and “Nebraska” is no exception.
After receiving a letter from the lottery sweepstakes, elderly Montana resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced he’s won $1 million and decides to travel to Nebraska to collect his prize. His son David (Will Forte) realises that his fathers growing senility has gotten the better of him but decides to accompany him on the journey to look after him. As they make several stops along the way, David learns more about his father’s distant past and how it’s shaped the person he is now.
After tackling the road-movie in “About Schmidt” and “Sideways“, Payne successfully returns to that sub-genre. Like those aforementioned films he, once again, astutely focuses on the interaction between odd and eccentric individuals who are struggling to come to terms with how their life and relationships have worked out. The beauty of Payne’s work is his palpable sense of realism and his consistent ability to capture believable character’s in all their frailty and vulnerability and “Nebraska” is no different. In fact, it’s arguably his finest work yet.
Working from a cleverly nuanced script by Bob Nelson, Payne’s casting choices are what really stand out here. A lot has been said about the Oscar nominated performance of Bruce Dern and I can only add that the plaudits and superlatives this veteran actor has received are all very well deserved. Dern is simply marvellous as the cantankerous old-timer Woody, who’s stubbornness and determination drives the narrative. That being said, as good as Dern is, he’s not the only one on form here. As his patient and good-natured son, Will Forte delivers solid support and another veteran actor in Stacy Keach brings a reminder of his outstanding qualities and begs the question as to why his talents are not utilised more these days. Added this already fine line-up is the marvellous (and also Oscar nominated) June Squibb, as Woody’s pugnacious and passionately pragmatic wife. With Jennifer Lawrence already gathering awards for her performance in “American Hustle” and Lupita Nyong’o seemingly the viewers’ favourite for her performance in “12 Years A Slave“, I’m very surprised at how little Squibb’s work has been mentioned. I’ve made my mind up that this unsung actress deserves to go home with the coveted golden baldy. She really is that good.
Primarily, though, this a beautifully touched upon father/son relationship tale played against the backdrop of a satirical depiction of Americana. For a film that has a seemingly sombre and melancholic appearance, it’s actually a bittersweet and often hilarious examination of family dynamics, memories and the passing of time which is reflected wonderfully in Payne’s decision to shoot in black & white. It’s a very wise move and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s desaturated look not only reflects ageing memories but also the character and mindset of Woody himself, with his outlook and opinion on life consisting of few grey areas.
Payne has crafted a very rich and nuanced character study here, that’s not only one of his finest moments but contains some of the best work by everyone involved and is rightly regarded as one the years best films.
Trivia: As casting for the film began, Payne met with more than 50 actors because Paramount studios demanded a big name star. Gene Hackman, Robert Forster, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro were initially short listed for the role but Payne eventually decided on Bruce Dern.