Tuesday 4 February 2014

Movie Review: Nebraska (2013)

A road movie into the dusk of life, Nebraska is a serio-comic journey through greying small-town America, a slice of society largely unchanged in the past several decades and now left behind to fade into bittersweet memories.

In Billings, Montana, elderly and gullible war veteran Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a bulk sweepstakes letter, and is convinced that he has won a million dollars. Despite vigorous protestations from his wife Kate (June Squibb) and sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody insists that he needs to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his winnings. He wants to use the money to buy a new pick-up truck and a new compressor to replace the one "borrowed" and never returned by his former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

David finally relents and agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln. On the way they stop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska for what turns into a family reunion at the home of Woody's brother Ray (Rance Howard), and his two good-for-nothing sons Cole and Bart. Kate and Ross join the gathering, while Woody reconnects with Ed, who still lives in Hawthorne. As Kate revives childhood memories of the town and all its inhabitants, word spreads that Woody has won a million dollars, causing growing tension and jealousy towards Woody from family members and supposed friends.

With a relatively limited amount of plot, director Alexander Payne constructs a tableaux for a way of life coming to a close, and contrasts the lyrical beauty of the landscape with the ugly human traits residing just below the surface. Proceeding at a leisurely pace, filmed in sparkling black and white and filled with stunning shots of rural, agricultural America and the main streets and bars of its small towns, Nebraska is a more subtle version of Blue Velvet: beneath the facade of charm lies a distasteful undercurrent.

Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson do not bemoan the fading away of people and places forgotten by the march of progress. Everything has a time and place, and some members of Woody's generation are well past their prime. It is fascinating that the film features no smartphones, tablets, computers or GPS units. At Ray's house, the television is the eternal centre of attention for the whole family, much like it was in the 1950s, and Cole and Bart still discuss cars in the context of whether or not they are "Jap".

In this space, old men and old women reminisce, gossip and grouch, and at the earliest opportunity turn surly. Grudges are held for generations and greed rears its ugly head at the first mention of wealth. Memories are long, achievements are short, and change is a foreign concept. There are bright spots of humanity, as David tries to connect with his Dad as best as he can, and Woody reveals his generous intentions for his mythical million dollars, or at least the left-over amount after the truck and compressor are looked after. But Payne finds in Nebraska a family that comes to blows over money, a former partner who suddenly manufactures a large amount owed, and even a mugging of an old man, as principles quickly evaporate under the glare of the potential for easy money.

Bruce Dern as Woody shuffles through the film in an excellent portrayal of a once proud citizen now overrun by life and looking for that final piece of pride. Generally uncommunicative, stubborn and yet quick to believe a lot of what he is told, Woody gets his pleasure from a streak of independence, and Dern finds the determined man beneath all the surface incrustations. Woody's time is coming to an end, but nothing will stop him from stretching for one final handshake with a glory long since departed.

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