Movie Review: Nebraska

Movie: Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Cinematography, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (6 nominations total)

Alexander Payne, who previously brought us About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and The Descendants (2011), is back on Academy radar with Nebraska, a story about an old man who wants desperately for one good thing to happen to him so he feels like he's got a purpose again, and the trials this unreasoning request puts his family through, his youngest son in particular. Bruce Dern does a really convincing turn as an alcoholic old man from Billings, Woody Grant, who gets one of those magazine contest announcements in the mail declaring that he might have won a million dollars, and he's determined to go to Nebraska (where he was from) to collect. Against the wishes of his wife and oldest son (and mostly just to stop his attempts to escape and walk there by himself), his youngest son takes a few days off work and they roadtrip from Montana to Nebraska, stopping off to see family along the way. Once there, David (played by Will Forte) learns a lot about his family and his father's past, including secrets that, though long since robbed of their power to harm, he might have been better off not knowing. David's realization that nothing's certain, that nothing's quite as black and white as the visuals of the film we're given, lets him find equilibrium by the end, but despite his role as the PoV character, the story is really Woody's.

Payne's choice to give us black and white is interesting -- in keeping, I think, with the landscape, which in the winter while they were there would be effectively sepia toned anyway. The story is deceptively hopeful -- bleak as it is upon first encounter, there's life underneath. The prairies are a good fit for this film in that respect -- Payne evidently knows about life in the middle of nowhere and he brings that to the movie in spades. He's also not afraid to let silence do his work for him. Nothing seems rushed in this film, and those spaces hold empty multitudes.

Personally, the family scenes in this film were hard for me to watch -- they weren't bad, they were just close reminders of places I've lived and people I've loved. Apparently some group dynamics don't change. I've lived in places where the grain elevators are the defining feature of the town, where curbs don't exist, and where you feel like if you walk a block over, into the field, that you'll have fallen off the face of civilization. Payne captured that, and the result was squirm-inducing for me, caught between fond recollection and wanting to get away as quickly as possible. The acting in this film was really good -- June Squibb was pretty darn delightful and stole every scene she was in. Comparing this and Jennifer Lawrence's performances, I can say that I'd flatly hand it to Ms. Squibb. At the same time, I find that the movie falls flat for me even though I think it's really well done and that it's worth seeing once. I guess, for me, there's not enough in the back roads of Nebraska to make me want to come back, or regret escaping once the trip is over, no matter how well executed it was.

Next up: August: Osage County.

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