Nebraska: Bumpy lives, flat land (a review)

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Much like the Big Sky prairies that serve as its backdrop, Alexander Payne’s 2013 film Nebraska takes a little bit to get going, but when it hits its stride, there is no stopping it.

An irascible old drunkard Woody (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s won a $1,000,000 lottery and is determined to collect his prize in person, walking if he must from his home in Billings, Montana to the prize centre in Lincoln, Nebraska. When his youngest son David (Will Forte) realizes there is no stopping the senile old coot, he takes a few days off work and offers to drive.

Along the way, they stop for a few days in his father’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they are joined by his mother Kate (June Squibb) and older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But almost as quickly as the townsfolk and extended family realize the old man has struck it rich, the hands reach out for their cut, led by Woody’s former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach).

As I said, the movie starts out slow. Woody has nothing to say to any of his family, at times appearing to have dementia. David meanwhile faces an empty life and just wants to communicate on some level with his family, never having felt like he could talk to them. Thus, when the two men with nothing in common aside from chromosomes take to the road, it feels very much like the start of an opposites-connect buddy film.

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The dialogue is excruciatingly simple in the early going, rarely more than one or two syllable conversations. Despite occupying the passenger seat of the car, Dern’s Woody is never really there, only being forced into human contact by having everything repeated louder. Forte’s David, meanwhile, has a perpetual pout of a puppy begging to be patted on the head.

Eventually, though, if only out of frustration, David begins to take control of the situation and his life. Through his own explorations and by observing his father interact with the home townfolk, he begins to see that there is so much more to his father, and this is where I really started to take note of Forte as an actor, as something more than his MacGruber caricature.

I would say that Dern turns in a solid performance, but his dialogue is so short and his stare so vacant that only once in a while do we get a real glimpse of the tormented soul within the husk of a man. June Squibb’s Kate is something to behold, however (her voice and attitude remind me of Shelley Winters). Starting more as a screeching shrew, she really comes into her own in the latter half of the film with some of the funniest lines and the staunchest defense of her messed up husband. Odenkirk is solid, but isn’t really given much to do here…this is Forte’s movie.

My strongest reaction, however, is reserved for Stacy Keach, who yet again, plays the charming, smarmy bully asshole for which he is famous (think Papa Titus on the sitcom Titus). I can’t remember a role for which Keach didn’t deliver. The man eats up the screen. You can’t not watch him.

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In terms of cinematography, Payne chose to film the entire movie in black and white, giving the whole story a sense of being trapped in another time, and adding to the sense of desolation exhibited by both the geography of the region and the simplicity of the town of Hawthorne, with its barren sidewalks and seemingly abandoned businesses. The whole thing feels like an emotional dead zone and the lack of human spark in all but a few citizens reflects that.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is a simple one, devoid of plot twists or anxious moments. There are no great moments of revelation, but rather subtle hints at who Woody was when he was a young man. As such, the characters can come across as superficial and on-the-nose. But again, I think this was on purpose rather than a failing. I think he wanted to show us shallow people in a shallow land.

Toward the end, the movie started to take on a bit of a Hollywood ending feel, but although Nelson did start us down that road, he thankfully stopped himself before the point of schmaltzy no return.

All-in-all, I liked Nebraska, although I didn’t think it deserved the accolades it received at Cannes (Palme d’Or nomination, best actor for Dern), the Golden Globes (5 nominations) or the Oscars (6 nominations). It’s just not that deep a film, in my eyes.

 

You can find a PDF of the screenplay for Nebraska here.

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