Starring: Bruce Dern (Silent Running), Will Forte (MacGruber), June Squibb (About Schmidt), Stacy Keach (American History X), Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad)
Director: Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
Writer: Bob Nelson
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Release Date: 15 November (US), 6 December (UK)
Dealing with our relatives, especially elder relatives, is something I think most of us can relate to. Whether you love them or hate them, they’re bound to get on your nerves at some point. Nebraska tells the tale of one particularly disparate family, mainly the father and son, and how they learn to cope with each other.
The plot of Nebraska is a fairly simple set-up, but one that creates a lot of areas for conflict and humour. Whilst you know from the start that this situation can’t end too well, you’re still intrigued exactly how it’s going to get to that conclusion. I won’t say much about how the film ends, but it does manage to satisfy on both a story and an emotional level without feeling too sweet or out-of-nowhere. It’s one of those “it’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey” tales but, more specifically, the characters on that journey. The relationship between Woody (Dern) and David (Forte) is one I think we’ve seen before: the delusional old father whose constantly a pain for the put-upon son. But how exactly these two characters come to accept each other is what makes the film really work, as well as how they interact with the rest of the characters they encounter. Alexander Payne’s films always manage to make the mundane feel fascinating, and Nebraska is no different. His direction, combined with Bob Nelson’s excellent screenplay, really gives the film a down-to-earth feel; this world and its characters feel plucked right out of reality, and the way the conversations flow feels naturalistic whilst still remaining engaging and humorous. Here’s a good example: there’s a scene where Woody and David are watching a football game with Woody’s brothers, when one of the brothers sparks up a random conversation about one of the other brother’s old car. This scene has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, but the way the scene flows with its deliberate pacing and simplistic dialogue makes for a moment that is hilarious but also perfectly captures the nature of those meandering conversations you might find yourself in with your family.
Bruce Dern is a true veteran of cinema, with an expansive career on a variety of films dating way back to the 1960s. The appearance of Woody alone sums up his character: a ragged old man on his last legs looking for one last moment of glory. But Dern’s performance just makes it click even more. His confused expressions, quiet manner and obliviousness make for a wonderfully sympathetic character. Just as good is Will Forte as David, whose much livelier persona from Saturday Night Live has been totally ripped away to leave a weary shell of a man. His chemistry with Dern is just outstanding; any scene where they just sit down and talk is wonderful to listen to. The film’s supporting cast is also varied and interesting. June Squibb is terrific as Woody’s long-suffering wife, switching quickly from kindly old lady to fierce, no-bullsh*t woman and back again. Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother is also good, who is just as fed up with his father but not quite as kind as David is at least trying to be. Stacy Keach plays an old friend of Woody and, whilst Keach’s performance is great, I found his character a little one-note and his presence not great enough to feel like a full antagonist. He comes in, asks for some money, doesn’t get it, and the he or the other character leaves. But his comeuppance at the end of the film is a good payoff and makes me forgive some of his less than stellar moments.
Payne has gone for a very classic look for the film, immediately obvious from the first frame that shows the original Paramount logo. Though actually shot on digital, the picture has been processed to look like old black and white film. Whilst this has no overall effect on the quality of the film, the aesthetic of it didn’t always look right and I think they probably should have just shot it on film if that’s what they were going for. Besides that, the cinematography is simple but engrossing, the editing is perfectly paced, and the score is basic but very memorable.
Nebraska is another homerun for Payne. The story is simple but perfectly executed, the cast all provide stellar work, and the film’s message about family and dreams is wonderfully poignant. Other than some of those minor aforementioned problems, the only other negative I have to say is that the second act does go on a little too long. But I really had to think hard to find those flaws, because everything else about this picture is just gold. Go see it.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10