Film reviews and more since 2009

Nebraska (2013) review

Dir. Alexander Payne

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★★

Director Alexander Payne is currently one of the best dramatists in cinema right now simply because he makes films about realistic people in realistic situations. Payne seems to see no value in fantasy elements, far-fetched circumstances, or overly-comedic nonsense. His accomplished filmography includes the uproariously funny and poignant SidewaysThe Descendants, which I went on to name my favorite film of 2012, the bold satire Election, the humble and depressing About Schmidt, and the daring abortion comedy-drama Citizen Ruth.

Now with Nebraska he adds another incredible film to his filmography. Heavy on the drama, smart with its character depictions, but never schmaltzy nor self-satisfying, Nebraska paints a bleak and depressing portrait of Midwestern life centering on a broken family with little to live for. One day, however, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in a career-making performance) finds something to live for. Senile, an alcoholic in denial, and not one for long conversations, Woody receives a letter in the mail telling him he won a $1,000,000 prize and should come to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect it. His son, the quietly-sad David (Will Forte), informs him that the letter is a shameless piece of scam mail that requires the subscription to multiple magazines to even qualify for a raffle to potentially win the jackpot.

Woody doesn’t care. He believes that people or an organization wouldn’t say something that wasn’t one-hundred percent true. Residing in Billings, Montana, Woody abandons his long-suffering, brutally honest wife (June Squibb) numerous times by aimlessly walking (sometimes trudging) down interstate highways and side-streets to venture out to Lincoln to collect his supposed earnings. At first, David can’t fathom his father’s logic. He has informed him several times this is a hopeless scam, that he is in no condition to travel long distances (he can’t drive), and he doesn’t even need $1 million to begin with. Woody, stubborn as a mule (or is he?), offers very little reasoning for his actions. He simply does what he wants. But when people in Woody’s hometown get wind of this, along with distant family members that maybe should’ve remained distant, Woody now owes everyone money and a favor.

Director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson work wonderfully with Nebraska, especially Nelson, who is sure to paint the characters as realistic as they are relatable to the audiences. Consider Woody’s rather large family, made up of codgers who speak in disjointed sentences and delightfully funny souls who like to complain every chance they get. One of these people in particular is Woody’s wife Kate, portrayed by a fearless June Squibb where almost everything she says is a laugh riot. A key scene comes when Woody, Kate, and David are visiting the gravesites of Woody’s family members and for every person buried six feet under, Kate has a smarmy remark for them.

It’s all the more surprising to note that Will Forte, usually known for playing characters in goofball comedies, does tremendous work in a serious, darkly funny, but also depressing drama film. Forte embodies an everyman quality that will make him familiar to some, and the way he tries to live in the boundaries of reality while giving his father something to live for is easily relatable to someone who wants the best for their own parents. However, the performance of the two hours is easily given by Bruce Dern, who has the rare ability to play detached and clueless with a true sense of believability. I can only think of Paul Dano’s requirements for his character in Prisoners, released about two months back, where Dano had to always bear a facial expression that rendered him dazed and almost entirely out of touch with reality. Dern uses the effect to true emotional heights in Nebraska, with the uncanny ability to sit with a blank stare on his face and look as if he’s about to burst into tears.

That precise quality of Nebraska is why I was so drawn in (along with the excellent black and white photography); its lack of milking its story for emotions. It has the very ingredients to make a person cry from the senile father who never really was one to his children, the broken family, and the unremarkable rural life that seemingly offers no hope outside of a desolate landscape. However, just like Woody, the film looks on the brighter side of life, optimistic about the peculiar instances and finding solace in a practical adventure. It doesn’t have time to waste on sappy musical cues and actors phoning in emotion; it’s much too concerned for articulating the characters and the adventure at hand.

It’s also wonderful to see Will Forte in a pleasantly different role, alongside his frequent collaborator and friend Bob Odenkirk as siblings in Nebraska. The last time Forte and Odenkirk teamed up, if I recall correctly, The Brothers Solomon happened and such a film doesn’t even deserve a mention in this review.

NOTE: As of this writing, Nebraska is available to rent on multiple platforms.

REVIEWS OF OTHER ALEXANDER PAYNE FILMS:
My review of Sideways (2004)
My review of The Descendants (2011)
My review of Downsizing (2017)
My review of The Holdovers

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, and Stacy Keach. Directed by: Alexander Payne.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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