Genre: Adventure, Drama
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach
There’s something joyfully minimalist about Alexander Payne’s latest offering. After baiting the Oscar committee with The Descendants back in 2011, Payne has returned to his roots and indeed his childhood with Nebraska, a gloriously bittersweet tale of family through the eyes of different generations. Deservedly well received at both the Cannes & London festivals, it was warmly welcomed as the opening of this year’s Brighton Film Festival.
While the Cornhusker State may make the title, Nebraska’s story begins in Montana, with aging alcoholic Woody Grant determined to travel, by foot if necessary, to the eponymous state to claim a million dollar prize he believes he has won in a marketing sweepstake. Woody’s unrelenting determination to get his prize causes his estranged son David to humour him by driving Woody to Nebraska, via a stop-off in the small town of Hawthorn, where Woody grew up.
Having spent his previous works exploring the less romanticized aspects of friendships & relationships, Payne turns his focus squarely on to family in Nebraska. Despite this being one of the only films he hasn’t written, it still feels profoundly personal, Payne observing both the funny and the tender aspects of fractured family relationships. Screenwriter Bob Nelson takes great care of all his characters, allowing each of their stories, no matter how trivial, to observably develop at their own pace. It does, admittedly, make for a notably slower pace compared to some of Payne’s previous films, but you barely notice; Nelson draws his characters so well that, whether you love or loathe them, all you want to do is spend more time with them.
Central to the film is the relationship between Woody & David. Both Bruce Dern and Will Forte give exemplary performances as the estranged father & son. Dern, in particular, is a marvel and his dry delivery of a variety of eminently quotable lines will always keep you laughing. Yet the key to his performance is in the quieter, more poignant moments. This is a film that is unafraid to shy away from the realities of aging and Dern encapsulates these truths with a subtle sensitivity that will ring true with audience members from both the young and the older generations.
Dern, however, is almost outshone on screen by June Squibb as Woody’s long suffering wife Kate. She is the emotional pillar that we sympathize with, her loud mouth constantly venting her fury at her husband’s persistence in his conquest; “ I never even knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire… he should have thought about that years ago and worked for it” she spits hilariously.
Like all of Payne’s films, Nebraska is masterfully shot. The use of B&W film offers realism to the films observations about America’s financial hardships. The small, dilapidated town of Hawthorn, that seems all but forgotten, lending the film a pathos that is heartbreakingly affecting.
With an output as strong now as it was when he released Election back in the late 90s, Alexander Payne has firmly established himself as one of the finest filmmakers in America today. His ability to draw on both the humorous and heart-breaking aspects of human interaction is masterly and Nebraska is the epitome of this unsung director’s talents. Both heartfelt and hilarious, with excellent performances from an assured cast, Nebraska will almost certainly be one of the best films you see this year.