Some of the Grant family of Hawthorne, Nebraska, are now transplanted to Billings, Montana, where stubborn, taciturn Woody (Bruce Dern) is well past his prime -- such as it ever was -- and possibly his usefulness, but he believes he's got one last shot at mattering: a notice that he's the lucky winner of a million-dollar sweepstakes. Determined to chase that pot of gold, he won't be talked out of it, so his son David (Will Forte) reluctantly escorts him to make sure he doesn't get lost or otherwise endangered.
Review by Louise Keller:
Liberally brimming over with rich observations and exquisite character portrayals, Nebraska is a road movie in its own unique category. It is with great deliberation and the utmost care that director Alexander Payne tells this story about an old codger from Montana who needs something to live for. He believes the answer is in Nebraska. Shot in black and white and set in the present day, Bob Nelson's screenplay depicts an era from the past when time literally stands still and the biggest action takes place at the local tavern, where memories are evoked. Bruce Dern is formidable as the ageing, confused protagonist, about whom we learn through his actions and interactions with his family and former acquaintances. This is a beautiful film filled with melancholy, regret and longing and whose delicacy lingers.
The story is simple. But the characters are not. In the opening scene, we meet Woody Grant (Dern), shuffling along in the snow along the side of the road, intent on walking hundreds of miles to Nebraska. Pivotal to the exposition is his son David (Will Forte), who picks him up, takes him home and tells him the million dollars he has been told he has won is just a scam. But he agrees to drive him to Nebraska anyway.
The expansive paddocks with lazy cows, hay bales and wheat fields are the interstitials as the road trip begins. There's a detour and some confusion when Woody loses his teeth by the railway tracks but the main action takes place in his former hometown of Hawthorne, the midway point to Nebraska. Worth noting is the scene in the tavern when Woody has a beer and David orders a Mountain Mist. As Woody suggests his son has a beer with him, he says 'Do something that matters.'
We meet the family - those who are alive and who sit on the couch watching telly with not much to say. We also meet those who have moved on - in the local cemetery and about whom we get a clear snapshot (a drunk, a slut), through the sharp tongue and observations of Woody's forthright wife Kate (June Squibb). Kate is as outspoken as Woody is reticent. Squibb is a scene stealer. All different aspects about Woody from his earlier life are revealed through the relations and former acquaintances that we meet. The fact that he becomes an instant celebrity, when he reveals he has won a million dollars is the catalyst for the changing behaviour of everyone around him. Ah the fickle, greedy nature of man is displayed.
The performances and textures are superlative and we are allowed to understand these people and how they tick. There is humour everywhere - from the clown-like cousins to the wife who loudly and inappropriately remembers those who had tried her bloomers. There is underlying sadness about David, the son who is unable to make a commitment but wants to help his father. The father son relationship is at the forefront of the film and is one of its most satisfying aspects.
The complexities of the film's resolution are a great surprise although the sentiment of 'doing something that matters' is not. Don't miss Bruce Dern's award-winning performance. It is just one of the highlights of this treasure trove of a film.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Full of little riches of observation, character and irony, Nebraska is a gem of a film from a master filmmaker. Alexander Payne has made a film that should by rights never have been financed. It's about a crazy old goat, Woody (Bruce Dern) and his rather ordinary, mostly elderly family in the mid-West, and how in his confused state of mind he is sucked in by a letter from a magazine promotions outfit that he's won a million dollars. Oh, and we'll shoot it in black & white ... well, grey and grey actually. The two younger characters are his 30 something sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and their two overweight bumpkin cousins Col (Devin Ratray) and Randy (Kevin Kunkel).
June Squibb steals every scene she is in as Woody's wife Kate, which is no mean feet; she also creates a wonderfully complex character whose apparent self-contradictions are a genuine joy to observe.
And the target market? Well, let me chip in here: it's all the people who love cinema, not just movies. I call escapist entertainment movies, but films that are of lasting value are part of world cinema, as far as I'm concerned. Nebraska - in every frame and artistic / creative choice - is cinema.
The screenplay is precise, economical and insightful, while the performances all resonate as authentic. Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance, a portrait of a shrinking and greying old man, unsteady on his feet but firm in his determination to finally make a little mark in his world - a good one, for a change. But he's going about it all wrong, as his younger son David tries to explain. When David sees this is futile, he decides to humour his father, with whom he has shared very little to date.
So it is that instead of letting him walk the 700 miles from Billings in Montana to Lincoln in Nebraska, he takes a couple of days off work and drives the old man - knowing it will end in disappointment: he hasn't really won the money, he's just won an entry ticket.
Thus begins the road trip during which they stop off in the Grant family home town of Hawthorn, meeting some of the old folks, once friends, as well as several family members. These character cameos are a central element in the film's landscape - both literally and metaphorically. Some pass the test of character, some fail miserably as they scheme to get their hands on some of the prize money. It's a masterful piece of writing as Payne collects the vignettes with a keen eye for human weakness.
There are no pretty young people in this film, yet it's captivating to look at as the faces reflect the hardships and banality of their lives. Along the way, the broken bond between father and son is soldered back together, and the loser that was Woody regains a semblance of dignity - thanks to his son.
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CAST: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacey Keach, Missy Doty, Kevin Kunkel
PRODUCER: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
SCRIPT: Bob Nelson
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Phedon Papamichael
EDITOR: Kevin Tent
MUSIC: Mark Orton
PRODUCTION DESIGN: J. Dennis Washington
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 20, 2013