Glimmers hope like phosphorus in the last fading years of this fleeting existence; director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) and writer Bob Nelson take you on an intimate journey of a father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) that wrestles with life’s meaning and the pursuit of intangible fortune and glory.
Woody (Dern) must make his way from Montana to Nebraska by any means necessary to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. After several attempts on foot his estranged son David (Forte) negotiates with his firecracker of a mother Kate (June Squibb) to escort him there; despite the futility of the exercise.
Alexander Payne use of timeless black and white photography portrays the shells of the American mid-west with cinematic grandeur. One can’t help but feel the melancholy in the abandoned structures, the lonely homesteads paling in the vast seas of farm land. There’s a striking beauty in the hollow feeling structures bordering those wide streets. It’s beautifully balanced, authentic and yet unsentimental. Bob Nelson’s scripting is a sensational work in its ability to paint a courteous age of days gone by, small town community connectivity and no-nonsense home truths. The one on one time with Woody and David its dramatically potent and when the rest of the family or the tapestry of friends/townsfolk is around it’s exponentially funnier.
June Squibb a refreshingly fiery elderly female voice that’s lost all of the decoration. What Dern’s Woody (and his family) lack in communication she makes up in spades. She’s the best kind of know it all, motor mouth, filth monger dropping truth bombs about all in sundry. Watch out for her as they visit the family gravesite to pay their respects, I laughed so much it hurt. The tapestry of supporting characters are just sensational. The chorus of monosyllabic men with rapidly declining hearing just sets and keeps the films perfect pace. Facing off Woody and David with Kate, Ross (a straight Bob Odenkirk that keeps going from strength to strength) and the family namely parolee nephews Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Stacy Keach’s leathery voiced Ed Pegram (Woody’s former business partner) feels like a barrage of comedic honesty.
Dern delivers Woody as a man in petulant decline. His independence, is now assisted, he continues to be accommodating while he has nothing to bargain with requests. Dern’s Woody isn’t suffering from dementia his subversive lack of wisdom and dismissive torpedoing meaning is an extremely uncompromising view of old age. The fleeting happiness left in the man is the empty swelling pride of being in the spotlight. Every gesture, every weathered wrinkle adds that indefinable ‘something’ to his performance.
While Dern has been wading through the praise heaped up him in the wake of this performance I think that Forte’s David is critical to its success. It’s a selfless supporting performance that’s the audiences gateway into the frustratingly contradictory man. Whether it’s loudly repeating questions from family they come across on the way, or attempting to extract wisdom or find meaning in his father’s failed pursuits he’s the conduit to how we understand the character. Payne wants you to feel David’s yearning and consistently frames looking up to his father especially when their immediate family (David, Woody, Kate and Ross) visit the house where Woody grew up. Forte observes, leaning hard into a door frame as wanders through a now dilapidated past.
In those final transcendent moments Nebraska is undeniable; agonisingly hilarious, unyielding in its paternal love and devastatingly authentic to the ache of life closer to its end than the beginning.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray and Angela McEwan