Director Alexander Payne returns to his midwest roots with a stunning tale of an old man going on a journey, Nebraska. Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska follows a father and son who travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.
Alexander Payne is known for stories about men discovering themselves but Nebraska takes that to the extreme here. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant who is old and drunk. The only thing keeping him going is the idea that he may have won a million dollars. He didn’t, but that idea that he may have keeps the whole plot moving and from there, the audience slowly discovers more about Woody, his son David (Will Forte) and his extended family. Like all good road trip movies, this one is about the journey not the destination.
And it is very funny, especially when they are in Hawthorn, Nebraska with Woody’s extended family. But the jokes aren’t forced, they are more drawn out and build off what we know about the characters. Woody constantly has double takes because he can’t hear, Forte uses his SNL trait of being awkward in some interesting ways and June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate swears her head off, insulting everyone living and dead. Payne is known for making funny movies, and this one certainly is.
However, it is safe to say this is a drama and there are some more serious moments where the characters reflect on time gone by. A trip to Woody’s old family home is especially somber as Woody sees a place he once knew in ruins. It also gets very tense when Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) learns about the money and wants a share. Payne does a good job at balancing the conflict with Pegram with the personal conflicts in Woody’s life. Neither conflict overrides the other and both get satisfying story arcs.
Bruce Dern is perfectly cast in the role of Woody. He is a man of few words, but when he speaks, it is a midwestern droll that fits the scenes perfectly. Dern also physically captures the character. He moves slowly, walks with a hunch and is slower at reacting to things. It’s really fascinating to watch Dern act here. He gets so absorbed into the character they become hard to separate which shows how great the performance is.
The supporting cast is ok. While I like Forte for some of his skits from SNL, he still doesn’t have all the dramatic chops needed for this role. His character has his own problems, but he didn’t really capture the sadness and hopelessness his dialogue hints at. But he does have some great one-liners. Bob Odenkirk also is in this as Woody’s other son Ross. His character isn’t on screen long enough to really factor into this movie. And Keach as the main antagonist Ed Pegram is pretty good. He again looks the part and is very intimidating. The performance was overall really well done.
A surprise star in the movie is Squibb as Kate, Woody’s wife. She provides almost all the humour and is both loud and profane in all the right moments. The energy Squibb brings to the character very much contradicts the other performances which is both a compliment to her and the writing. This performance is very memorable and she deserved her Oscar nomination.
Payne was at the screening I saw this movie at and he said something really interesting about the rest of the cast. Pretty much all the other characters were performed by people from the small town they filmed in. I thought that was amazing and it really shows the attention to detail given to this movie. The supporting characters are believable because they are just acting as they do everyday. That’s how you create real scenes in film.
What really set this movie apart though was the decision to make it black and white. Although the movie takes place in present day, there is no way the same emotion could be conveyed in colour. It isn’t distracting but rather it enhances the experience. It’s a movie about people and the black and white strips everything else away so we just see them and hear them. It was a great visual decision.
This is only the second Payne movie I’ve seen but I am looking forward to catching up on his other work. His ability to mix humour and drama in such an effective way really is a skill. And the decision to produce it in black and white removed a layer and helped simplify the story. All in all, it’s a good movie about a man and his son on a road trip. Simple and effective.