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Thoughts on Alexander Payne’s Entertaining and Bittersweet “Nebraska”

December 16, 2013

By John Corrado

Nebraska PosterThe opening scene of Nebraska is a perfectly framed long shot that shows us Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) walking towards the screen, as the memorable score by Mark Orton plays in the background and cars pass him on the road, before a police officer pulls over.  When his son David (Will Forte) comes to collect his elderly father at the police station, he tells him that he was walking from Montana to Nebraska, to collect the supposed prize winnings of a letter he received promising a million dollars.

Poor Woody Grant, knocked down so many times by life, that he drowns his sorrows in beer and naively buys into what is clearly a scam.  Although his wife (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) try to convince him otherwise, he is determined to make his way to the title state and collect the prize that he blindly believes will be waiting for him.

David sees no problem with keeping his father’s dream alive, at least for a few more days, so they take a road trip together that leads them to the small town where their extended family still resides, an assemblage of relatives who spend their days drinking and watching TV.  Everyone in town is thrilled at the news of Woody’s newfound fortune, including his old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), because they see it as a way for him to finally repay the money they have loaned him over the years.  Woody just wants enough to buy himself a new truck, even though he doesn’t have his license anymore.

This is just one of the many ironically funny details in Nebraska, a film filled with memorable characters and perfect little moments.  Alexander Payne has proven himself as a director with an impeccable gift for blending humour and heartache, and there are clear allusions between this and his 2002 dramedy About Schmidt.  The screenplay and characters are wonderfully written every step of the way, as Nebraska strikes a tone that is sometimes absurdly funny and always bittersweet, exemplified by the haunting black and white cinematography that gives everything a feeling of timelessness.   From the beautiful framing to the pitch perfect moments of dry humour, there are also undertones of Wes Anderson throughout the film.

The casting is equally memorable.  Bruce Dern won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, and it’s easy to see why.  The veteran actor delivers a masterful performance, perfectly embodying this man who is starting to show the confusion of his age, but has never given up on the dream of actually hitting it rich and moving forward in a way that his family never did.  Will Forte shines in his first big dramatic role, and he is quietly affecting throughout the film as a genuinely nice guy who just wants to do the right thing for his father.  June Squibb proves herself as an elderly scene stealer, and her shockingly hilarious antics during a visit to the cemetery won’t soon be forgotten.  The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent.

Watching Nebraska, I was reminded of the famous scene in the 1983 classic A Christmas Story when Darren McGavin’s character proudly looks upon his tacky leg lamp, beaming with pride not at the object itself, but because it’s something he has won.  It’s his “major award,” an object that is even better in his eyes because it was given to him without even having to work for it.  These two movies are obviously quite different, but that is the same look I saw on the face of Woody Grant throughout Nebraska.  He dreams of being a millionaire for the pride and respect that he will finally get for having money to his name, and he willingly believes every word of the letter because it’s his last hope to make this dream come true.

The black and white look of Nebraska helps represent these people and places who are lost in time and stuck in a certain moment, never having moved past the bygone era that has left them behind.  There is just so much beneath the surface of the film, which plays with grand ideas about chasing that elusive sense of accomplishment known as the American Dream.  Woody Grant represents the dreams we make for ourselves when the only things left to hope for never actually came our way, and his son David is someone who understands the importance of keeping these dreams alive, no matter what the cost.

I wouldn’t think of spoiling the end of this masterfully handled journey, because watching the events as they unfold alongside the characters makes the final few scenes even more poignant, but Nebraska closes on a deeply touching note that beautifully brings these themes to the forefront.  This is another pitch perfect character study from Alexander Payne, an entertaining and bittersweet film that ranks among the best of the year.

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