Never one to concern himself with Hollywood sentimentality Nebraska director Alexander Payne delivers a typically dry yet endlessly endearing slice of middle-American life. Payne’s work always gives a brilliant insight into real people with a large dollop of black-comedy to keep a smile painted firmly on the face of the viewer and Nebraska is in no hurry to break that trend.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a miserable old man who believes he’s won a million dollars thanks to what appears to be a postal scam. Of course no one else believes him but with Woody determined to collect his prize in person and wife Kate (June Squibb) at her wits end as to how to deal with him, son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him from Montana to Nebraska. Along the way the estranged pair share memories as David begins to learn about his father’s past that he never knew existed.
Something of an also-ran at this year’s Oscars Nebraska nonetheless deserved to be on the shortlist come award season. Never before has Payne not been involved in the writing process of one of his films but Bob Nelson’s script is quintessential Payne material. Full of wonderfully nuanced character observations and a bitter-sweet narrative Nebraska is proof that more often than not, less is more.
Shot in stark black and white, seemingly the colour pallet most suited to Nebraska (see Bruce Springsteen’s album cover also named after the state as another key example), and filled with run-down towns and sprawling farmland it is the perfect way to capture Woody’s isolation from the world around him. But while they embark on their journey together so David begins to realise his father might not be loser he always thought he was.
Bringing these characters to life is a perfect cast. Stacy Keach gives a wonderfully unpleasant turn as Woody’s former business partner Ed who you pray gets his comeuppance. Forte plays the straight guy to the more eccentric cast around him, it’s an understated performance but one that anchors the bizarre world of Woody and his family, a role that manages to offer us a way into the family drama with a well-placed eye-roll at the madness around him. Squibb, Oscar nominated for her role, is that elderly lady you wish was your grandmother; short, often hostile and not averse to throwing in the occasional profanity she’s a delight and impossible not to love.
And at the centre of it all Bruce Dern fills the screen with a man of few words but endless magnetism. More often than not his Woody has little idea of what’s really going on, a blank look of surprise painted on his face and a sense of naivety that is affecting and uplifting come the climax.
While Nebraska may have lost out at the Oscars it is a film that is certain to win your heart with it’s simple story elegantly told.