REVIEW: Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne’s latest film Nebraska hit UK cinemas on December 6 – an absolute must-see!


Picture a wide landscape. White fields stand out against the grey sky. Dark cow-shaped dots here and there. A black truck enters the frame from the right and drives out of sight again. The camera statically lingering over the landscape. Silence, but no – the sound of a violin in the distance.

Director Alexander Payne is known for his notorious obsession with roadmovies – no newcomer to this genre, he took us on a stroll through Nebraska and Colorado (About Schmidt, 2002), on a leisurely cruise in the Californian wine country (Sideways, 2004) and a troublesome ride in Hawaii (The Descendants, 2011). As always guided by dark humour and a satirical perspective on the American society, his latest film Nebraska (2013) is no exception.

Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who is bent on getting from Montana to Nebraska in order to claim his prize of a million dollars – by foot if necessary. The letter, of course, is a scam, but Woody will not let go. After repetitive unsuccessful attempts, his son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive the old man to Nebraska. On their way they stop in Woody’s home town and soon everything seems to spiral downwards. But in the light of a greedy small town, the once estranged pair enters a trajectory of reconciliation.

Virtuosically Payne composes a mosaic of the American mid-west, assembling landscape, music, loveable characters and a convincing storyline. For the first time, Payne was not directly involved in the screenplay, which was originally penned by Bob Nelson about 10 years ago. Fortunately, one wants to say. In contrast to The Descendants, Nebraska is not trying to half-heartedly cover every single issue of contemporary society. Without being polished and exemplaryhe  Nelson’s characters are full of flaws – not dropped into the American landscape in a rootless manner as in Sideways. They are highly stylized and stereotyped, but remain relatable; hard to take, and yet lovable.

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The cast is led by Bruce Dern, who for his excellent performance as Woody Grant received the high price of Cannes film festival for Best Actor in 2013. Dern’s interplay with his film-son Will Forte is carried by passion, wit and curiosity – just as Woody and David, Dern and Forte got to know each other on set. Topped off by June Squibb’s sassy portrayal of Woody’s wife Kate like a bitter-sweet cherry, the outstanding core cast easily distracts from the sometimes mediocre cast side roles. The beaming exceptions definitely being Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll as David’s dumb hick cousins Cole and Bart.

Teaser: Kate Grant’s dry perspective on Woody’s family

The black and white images flicker across the screen. Various shades of grey are in accord with the versatile leading characters, while strong contrasts in the iconic landscape echo the black-and-white attitudes of the rural society surrounding them. Distracting at first, the film’s lacking colour scheme becomes natural – highlighting the dark and the bright sides of Woody’s past. Picked up by the folky tunes of former Tin Hat member Mark Orton, the soundscape of fiddlers, acoustic guitars and accordions, as well, is always a little sad, but eventually full of hope.

In Nebraska Alexander Payne finally brought together and skilfully coordinated a well-crafted script, mature characters, astonishing cinematography and tunes that stick to your heart like rednecks to the idea of sudden wealth.

In cinemas (UK): Dec 6, 2013

images via IMBD
Photo credit: Merie W. Wallace – © MMXIII Paramount Vantage, A Division of Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.


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