I have been a fan of Alexander Payne ever since Sideways (2004). Therefore, I was keen to check out his latest film Nebraska (2013) – especially after all of the Oscar buzz surrounding it.
Nebraska stars screen veteran Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, the film’s protagonist, and centres on him and his estranged son David played by Will Forte. The story is set in the town of Billings Montana, where Woody receives a 1 million dollar sweepstakes letter in the mail. Seizing his chance, he decides to embark on a trip to Lincoln Nebraska with his sceptical son in tow to collect his prize. Along the way, David learns a lot about his alcoholic father and vice versa.
The film begins with Woody attempting to walk to Lincoln on his own. This opening scene shows the viewer that Woody really is on his last legs, and is struggling with his health. After confiding in his son about his win, David tells him that it is a scam. Although David (who works in an electronics store and has just been dumped by his girlfriend) knows this is not a legitimate prize, he goes with his father because he knows his father does not have long left. Woody’s other son Ross (played by Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk) and wife Kate (played excellently by June Squibb) are also sceptical about this and are desperate to change Woody’s mind.
After stopping in Woody’s home-town of Hawthorne on the way to Lincoln, word quickly spreads of Woody’s apparent new found wealth and he becomes the talk of the town. As a result, this changes the behaviour of some of Woody’s family and friends who try and take advantage of him. One such occurrence is from Woody’s old friend Ed Pegram (played by Stacy Keach) who claims Woody owes him money from years prior. As the story progresses, David and Woody are joined by Kate and Ross, and we really see a progression within their family unit.
Towards the latter half of the story, Woody’s letter is stolen from Woody’s masked nephews Bart and Cole (played by Home Alone’s Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll). After David propositions them later on, they state how “bogus” the letter is and Woody becomes a laughing stock. It is at this point that we realise that Woody wanted the money to leave to his family after his death.
At the film’s conclusion, Woody and David reach Lincoln on their own to find that Woody was not in fact the winner of the prize. As Woody always wanted a truck, David trades in his car for a second hand one and tells Woody it is in his name. The story closes with Woody driving through the town with David hiding in the passenger seat. Woody’s dignity is somewhat restored, and he truly does feel like a millionaire.
One of the first obvious stylistic choices is that this film is in black and white. Alexander Payne chose to do this as he wanted to produce an “iconic, archetypal look.” This works very well with the beautiful shots of landscapes, and it is not surprising cinematographer Phedon Papamichael was nominated for an Oscar for this.
This film is also a character piece, and the writing is great. Screenwriter Bob Nelson did a nice job of crafting some really interesting characters with equally interesting back stories. The characters really do feel real, which was one of my favourite features of the film. The dialogue is also laced with humour, and I found myself laughing throughout. Nelson creates a real sense of community in the story too and I genuinely felt like these characters had known each other for years.
The acting is another feature that really makes this film excel. Dern and Squibb were deserving of Oscar nominations, and Squibb really did steal the show. She is provided with all the best comic lines, and can’t help but be likable. The secondary characters were also great, and I could not note one poor performance.
Director Alexander Payne truly has crafted a film that will stand up against other films like Sideways and The Descendants (2011). With a great script, stunning cinematography and equally effective acting, I highly recommend this film
By Robert Spence