After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail claiming he’d won a million dollars, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is determined to collect his prize – even if it means walking across four states to Nebraska. Much to his long-suffering wife Kate’s (June Squibb) dismay, Woody convinces his son David (Will Forte) to embark on a road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings, but not without a few interesting stops along the way.
Director Alexander Payne has created one of those rare films where all the elements of filmmaking come together so seamlessly it’s hard to pinpoint what makes Nebraska such a special film. Payne has an incredible ability of blending humour with sorrow, of producing heart in the most simple of stories, and the result is magical; from the opening scene, I was captivated. It certainly helps when the screenwriting is some of the best in recent cinema; I haven’t been this excited about a film’s script since Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 adapted screenplay for The Social Network. Payne was incredibly lucky to team up with screenwriter Bob Nelson, who is deservedly nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Nebraska. Nelson’s script is a charming exploration of life in a disintegrating Middle America, full of wit and sincerity.
Bruce Dern is fantastic as the cantankerous Woody, acting the role with a “no bull” attitude that is hilarious, and frustrating, and saddening all at the same time. The more we see of Woody, particularly his interactions between his old friends and family during a stop in his hometown of “Hawthorne”, the more we want him to complete his journey to Lincoln, even though we realise the end will be heartbreaking. This isn’t a simple matter of barracking for the underdog; Nebraska is an endearing portrait of growing old in a world that at times feels alienating and overwhelming. Despite how futile an endeavour it may seem, Nebraska shows us it’s sometimes important to take that journey even if just to say “at least I did something”.
Dern isn’t the only standout performance in Nebraska; in fact the casting is so spot on that even the smallest of roles feels authentic and adds to the overall charm of the film. June Squibb is an absolute delight as Kate, Woody’s husband. Squibb is perfection as the opinionated and crude Kate, providing a hysterical sense of humour to the motor mouth matriarch that compliments Dern’s deadpan delivery to a tee. Together the pair is wonderfully at odds with each other, creating some of the funniest moments throughout the film. Both Dern and Squibb have been nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in Nebraska, and it really isn’t difficult to understand why. Will Forte also deserves a mention; his performance as the estranged son feels very authentic and real, and his at times wide-eyed approach to the role of David is lovely.
Payne takes a considerable risk with Nebraska by shooting the film in black and white, and the risk certainly pays off. Nebraska is a visually beautiful film evoking a strong sense of a past America so intrinsic to the road movie. The Academy Award nominated black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is stunning and flawlessly captures the melancholy for a past American life that is slowly fading away. This emotion is heightened by a truly wonderful score by Mark Orton; the soundtrack is uplifting, and haunting, and whimsical, and melancholic, and I can’t help but draw parallels to Ry Cooder’s score for Paris,Texas as both capture the true essence of the road movie in such a simple arrangement of music.
Nebraska is easily my favourite film of 2014 so far. I have high hopes for its success in the Academy Awards and will be barracking for it along the way. Go and see this charming film, you won’t be able to help but fall in love.
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