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Sunday, March 16, 2014


Unbelievably, this week sees the release of two truly excellent movies - and they couldn't possibly be more different from one another. 

First up, the return of Alexander Payne. Now in glorious black and white!

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Father and son, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte) Grant, embark on a roadtrip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the million dollars that Woody is convinced is owed to him from a piece of junkmail marketing that he receives in the post. Their already fairly frayed relationship is put to the test as David is forced to indulge his father's fantasies and monosyllabic gruffness – and that's before the two make a stop in the small town where Woody grew up and parts of his family still live.

What we thought

Nebraska hits squarely on two of director Alexander Payne's favourite subjects: cross-country roadtrips and complicated family dynamics and it does so with all the deadpan humour, strong characterization and broiling if understated emotion on which he has built his reputation as one of America's great indie-spirited directors.

Admittedly, it would be nice to see him return to some of the bitter satire of Election but Nebraska still serves as a typically brilliant companion piece to About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants as it touches on many of the same themes and does so with all the same compassion and wry wit. Touching on themes of ageing, loss, familial bonds, long-term romantic relationships, economic desolation and ultimately on finding meaning and purpose in even the most mundane aspects of life, the film is a master class in balancing some seriously conflicting emotions and moods.

Woody and David, the two male characters at the centre of the film, are separated by a generation and are in vastly different stages in their respective lives but they have more in common than even their familial bonds would suggest. In particular, both are suffering from major existential crises that are, in effect, the primary driving forces of their preposterous journey. While Woody is faced with obsolescence, dementia and a lifetime of past mistakes and regrets, while David is faced with an uncertain future, an unfulfilling professional life and a long-term romantic relationship that is rapidly being eroded by his own fear of commitment.

Both characters are wonderfully rounded creations and are brought to vivid, vibrant life by two actors at the top of their game. Despite working consistently since 1960, Bruce Dern hasn't been front and centre for many, many years and he brings all of his years as a character actor of many wildly diverse roles to bear on a character who is weighed down by decades of his own experiences. Will Forte, on the other hand, has largely spent his career in comedy as a regular on Saturday Night Live for years and guest roles on more TV comedies than seemingly anyone else ever, so his nuanced, poignant dramatic work here is a real revelation.

This being an Alexander Payne movie, the plot is fairly simple and is there primarily to serve the characters and the themes that Payne is intent on exploring, but Nebraska may well have the best supporting cast of characters yet in one of his films. While David and Woody are very much front and centre, they are bolstered by at least a dozen beautifully rendered supporting characters. June Squibb has gotten most of the attention as Woody's long suffering, nagging but intensely loyal wife and she is utterly brilliant as the film's funniest, yet most sympathetic characters. Rounding out the family, we also have the always terrific Bob Odenkirk as David's far more successful and put together brother, Ross, who gets the least amount of screen time of the four but really makes the most of it.

Throughout the rest of the film we also meet Woody's extended family, as well as the many denizens of his childhood town and though none of these are as well rounded as the immediate Grant family, they're all memorably drawn – whether they're despicable, stupid and opportunistic or good-hearted, warm and sympathetic – and often very, very funny.

And then, of course, there is the most ubiquitous yet subtle characters in the film – the locations. It's not for nothing, after all, that this film is called Nebraska, rather than Woody and Dave and the stunning black and white cinematography conveys both the nostalgic, ye-old-America feel of these towns and the desolation and coldness that the 2008 recession wrought on the small businesses that make up America's quieter and lesser known settings.

Nebraska was nominated for countless awards this past awards season and it's easy to see why. It's a funny, melancholic and - in the most universal, non-religious sense – deeply spiritual little masterpiece of a film that is as sharply written as it is beautifully shot as it is expertly acted. It's great to be able to say this about yet another Oscars-contender: you don't want to miss this one.

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