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Nebraska

Dir: Alexander Payne. US. 2013. 110mins

A wry, somewhat downbeat comedy in the vein of The Straight Story, Nebraska sees Alexander Payne return to the road trip in this affecting story of a taciturn old man with advancing dementia, played by Bruce Dern, who insists on travelling to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son to claim a $1 million lottery prize which is clearly a scam.

While Nebraska is a wry comedy, the humour just adds a gloss to its main thrust, which is a tribute to America’s heartland and the generations who came, worked, and ultimately, the film suggests, lost this terrain.

Shot in lustrous black and white by Phedon Panamichael, a decision which emphasises the bleakness of its battered Midwestern terrain, Nebraska pays tribute to the stoic seniors who have lived a hard life in these dented, dingy towns of America’s heartland but takes an uneasy vantage point in which some of the laughs are affectionate and respectful yet others can feel a little cheap and mean-spirited.

Nebraska is much stronger when it starts speaks subtly of the past, through a son (Will Forte) who begins to piece together his father’s troubled life, and the relationship between his squabbling parents in this smaller-scale work from Payne.

Dern’s leading performance, supported by the wonderful June Squibb and a great cameo from Stacy Keach, should find a response come awards time and help attract smaller-scale, upmarket audiences to Payne’s work while not quite achieving the reach of Sideways or Election. Fans of the director will see a return to form after The Descendents.

Payne’s black-and-white view of his home terrain is stark with, at times, an almost Depression-era feel, starting in Billings, Montana – “the magic city” - with Woody Grant (Dern) determinedly walking down the freeway to claim his lottery winnings when he’s picked up by a policeman and brought home by his son, David (Forte). Woody’s outspoken, misanthropic wife June says it’s time to put him in a home, but electronics salesman David argues with his TV anchorman brother Ross (Odenkirk) to be more sympathetic to an elusive father who has always been uncommunicative, as well as a lifelong drunk.

Travelling through Wyoming – they detour to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – Woody ends up with a gash in his head after a drunken fall in Rapid City and they take a side trip to his home town of Hawthorne for what becomes a family reunion. Woody, it transpires, has six surviving brothers. Pieces of their story emerge – a Swedish father, a Lutheran upbringing, siblings who died, and military service in Korea.

This is where Nebraska is at its strongest. Meanwhile, as news of Woody’s lottery win circulates through Hawthorne, various “friends” including Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Keach) discover debts they’d like to be repaid. This is where Nebraska can stumble, when the characterisation of simple farming folk takes a turn towards the portraying them as simpletons.

Whenever things falter, though, there’s always June Sqibb as bitchy, complaining matriarch Kate to steal the show, positioning herself as the hottest thing in town back in the day. Against her, Forte’s performance can seem anemic, and the character of David fades into the dramatic scenery.

While Nebraska is a wry comedy, the humour just adds a gloss to its main thrust, which is a tribute to America’s heartland and the generations who came, worked, and ultimately, the film suggests, lost this terrain. This is where Nebraska is at its most powerful, and this is the picture that will resonate after the laughs subside.

Of note is Dennis Washington’s production design, captured sadly by Papamichael. The at-times jaunty, guitar-led score can be at odds, sometimes jarringly, with these visuals.

Production company: Paramount Vantage, Bona Fide Production

International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, www.wearefilmnation.com

Producers: Albert Berga, Ron Yerxa

Screenplay: Bob Nelson

Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael

Editor: Kevin Tent

Production designer: Dennis Washington

Music: Mark Orton

Main cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forge, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

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