Director Alexander Payne has made films that I love (Sideways) and films that I don’t (The Descendants) but his latest, Nebraska, is firmly in the former camp.
The action of the film centres around elderly Woody Grant and his son David as they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the million dollars that Woody believes he has won having received one of those ‘you’ve won a large cash prize’ junk mail letters.
Along the way the film examines notions of family relationships; parent to child, husband to wife, brother to brother and pretty much every other combination. The humour and tragedy of these bonds are explored with honesty and the film is by turns laugh out loud funny and gently moving. It doesn’t smack you in the face with an emotional cricket bat like About Time, choosing instead to carry you along with the characters in a series of subtly played events and interactions. The film is a lot more moving for it and I did cry just a little bit.
Clearly the majority of the film concentrates on the interplay between the father and the son and in doing so scrutinises this connection. Watching it I got a great sense of regret that none of us get to know our parents on a level. There is a photograph of my father and me in matching mustard knitwear that was taken when my Dad was around the same age as I am now. Looking at it I think how great it would have been to have got to know him properly as he was then. Unfortunately at the time I was totally preoccupied with being four and since then I’ve been busy growing up, moving out, establishing a career, getting married and starting a family of my own. Now that I’ve done all that I’m ready to be proper friends with that forty year old man in the yellow V-neck but unfortunately I’ve missed my chance. He couldn’t wait for me, he moved on and became a slightly older man who I won’t be able to properly empathise with for another ten, twenty or thirty years. It’s a shame, imagine knowing your parents as peers.
In Nebraska, this idea takes on a tragic tone as neither man is able to connect with the other in a way that is needed to bridge this generation gap. Constantly this failure to communicate simmers below understated scenes that are beautifully underplayed yet rich with melancholy. There are a trips to the family graves and the old family home that are particularly bittersweet. The more upbeat moments are just as memorable though and the balance of the whole thing is excellent leading up to a perfect ending that wraps it all up in a wonderfully cathartic and satisfying manner.
I also need to mention the cinematography that shows everything in a crisp monochrome and finally the brilliant performances. Saturday Night Live Alumni Will Forte, is best known to me for his recurring portrayal of Randy Wharmpess (nice to see Dickensian naming conventions living on) in How I Met Your Mother. He is great here giving a low key but honest and affecting performance as David, a man both committed to and frustrated by his father. June Squibb deserves a mention as the
incredibly forthright mother but the film belongs to Bruce Dern who totally convinces as the stubborn and confused yet resilient Woody committed to his pointless mission because for that brief time he has something to strive for.
Nebraska is a great film that takes you on a journey with its main characters and drops you off somewhere good at the end. I don’t want to say any more as the least you know when you watch it the better.
Bechdel Test Score = 3
Is this one for the kids?
Nebraska is a 15 but you probably need to be a good deal older to fully appreciate it.