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Nebraska - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published February 23rd 2014
A black and white love letter to America's mid-west
Director: Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election)
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne has made a career out of writing and directing films which could best be described as slice of life dramas with a large injection of comedy. Or you could say they're comedies with a serious undertone. About Schmidt, Sideways, Election and The Descendants all had audiences laughing, but they had their dark side.

nebraska bruce dern
Bruce Dern and Will Forte play father and son, Woody and David.

Nebraska is no different. In its depiction of an elderly man slowly succumbing to dementia, and his son's attempts to make his remaining days of semi-lucidity enjoyable, this is a film tinged with melancholy that also has a great deal of humour.

Woody lives in a small town in Montana with wife Kate, but lately has been taking off on foot unannounced to collect a million dollars in prize money he believes is owed to him. Notwithstanding that the trek interstate is an arduous one by foot, the prize is clearly a marketing scam to everyone but Woody, who just won't see reason.

His son David relents to make the long drive with Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska, believing the cold hard reality of the situation will hit him at the other end. If nothing else he will have spent time with his ailing father.

Like About Schmidt and Sideways before, what ensues is a road movie where home truths come to the fore. En route, the pair visit Woody's home town where small town pettiness and greed rear their ugly heads, especially in light of the misconception that Woody really has won a million dollars.

nebraska will forte
David (Will Forte) has a series of unfortunate exchanges with his nephews

One of the film's chief assets is its star Bruce Dern. He commands the screen as Woody, his eyes filled with sadness and confusion. This is a performance that caps a long and distinguished and career. Woody is initially introduced to us as a crabby, selfish old man, but as we learn more about his younger years we get a better understanding of his character and his taciturn nature is easier to forgive.

Just as impressive is June Squibb as his outspoken wife. Her lines consist of one great put-down after another. Whether spat out with ferocity or drawled with a dry nonchalance, she is an absolute pleasure to watch.

Together Squibb and Dern are like a well-oiled comedy machine. They may look like they've seen better days, but their timing and ability to inject soul into their abrasive characters is remarkable.

As their well-meaning son, Will Forte isn't quite as convincing. Granted, he's the straight guy in this comedy/drama, but often there doesn't seem to be much going on behind his eyes.

Visually, the film is gorgeous. Although shot on digital, the black and white footage has had grain added to it. The result feels like a nostalgic nod to some of the great rural-set American indie films of the 1970s - classics like Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show which also dealt with loss and isolation.

This is a film filled with sadness and humour, reminding us of both the good and the bad that individuals and communities are capable of. If you like the director's previous films, you're almost certain to be a fan of Nebraska.

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Why? Nominated for 6 Academy Awards
Where: At selected cinemas
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