Wednesday, 19 February 2014
Review: Nebraska (UK Cert 15)
Nebraska is Alexander Payne's sixth full-length movie and sees him return to his home state (after a sojourn in Hawaii for The Descendants) for a comedy-drama road movie. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who lives in Montana, is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska as he has received a letter telling him he's won a million dollars in a sweepstake. In fact, he's so determined to get to Nebraska, he'll walk there if he needs to. Son David (Will Forte) thinks the letter is nothing more than a marketing scam but Woody is adamant that he's won the money. David then offers to drive Woody to Lincoln to pick up his winnings. En route, they stop in Hawthorne, the town that Woody grew up in. However, news of Woody's win soon comes out and the long-lost relatives and acquaintances soon start to come out to see him...
Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival last year for his performance in this film and it's well deserved. It's a very quiet, unassuming performance, there are no actorly tricks or any real look-at-me moments. It's a solid and unshowy turn and is absolutely compelling. Woody could have easily been played broadly or for laughs but Dern reins it in. That's not to say it's not a funny or moving performance; it is, and there's a particularly good scene in a bar between Woody and David which gets to the heart of their relationship which is just brilliantly done.
Will Forte, better known for Saturday Night Live, gives a decent supporting turn as David. Exasperated by his father's persistence, he agrees to take him to Lincoln just to put an end to the matter. The story is as much about David learning about who his father is, as it is about the trip to get the money. There's a lovely scene in Hawthorne where David meets an old flame of his father's where he learns a lot about Woody- but (due to the elegance of the writing) it doesn't feel like an info-dump. David is presented as a man fiercely loyal to his family, despite them driving him crazy, and it feels real.
June Squibb gives a fantastic performance as Woody's wife Kate. Squibb previously worked with Payne on About Schmidt, where she had a small role as Jack Nicholson's wife, but here she's got a role to really get her teeth into. I found a lot of the humour came from Squibb and her performance- Kate is an acid-tongued old battleaxe with nary a good word to say for anyone, exemplified in the cemetery scene where she goes to pay her respects to Woody's family but ends up running them all down instead. She also gets a very satisfying scene later on where she gets to call out the parasitic relatives all circling for a piece of Woody's fortune.
There are a couple of other great performances. Stacy Keach is on good form as the oleaginous Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody's who comes calling when the news of the money comes round. Rance Howard and Mary Louise Wilson are good as Woody's brother and sister-in-law Ray and Martha who welcome the travellers into Hawthorne. There's also a good turn by Bob Odenkirk as Woody and Kate's other son Ross.
The film is shot in black-and-white, with moody shots of the Midwestern landscape (very flat and quite featureless) expertly captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The script, by Bob Nelson, is just excellent: the strained family gatherings feel real, feel authentic, even though they are exaggerated for film. We've all had experiences of being stuck with distant family members you haven't seen in an age and that awkwardness comes through here. Nelson also nicely captures the feeling of returning to your home town and finding it not quite as you left it.
This won't be to everyone's tastes. The film is occasionally meandering and a little ponderous and could do with a bit of editing- an early scene between David and his ex-girlfriend could be excised with very little effort, for example- but, for me, this doesn't detract from the overall picture which is a strong, well-acted, well-written and nicely-shot comedy-drama.
Rating: 4 out of 5