Small Towns And Tiny Triumphs
Thanks to Roadshow Films, we had the chance to see Alexander Payne’s Nebraska before its Australian release. This is our review of the film, but – as usual – no matter what we say, we recommend that you still go to your local cinema and see the film because there is no better critic than yourself!
About halfway into Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) are approached at a grey bus stop by a particularly exuberant senior citizen (John Reynolds) who introduces himself, with a vigorous handshake, as old acquaintance Bernie Bowen. Woody doesn’t seem to remember him but then again, Woody isn’t remembering a whole lot these days. Bernie is very excited to have run into Woody, who is passing through town on his way to collect the one million dollars in sweepstakes prize money he believes he has won. “Everybody’s sayin’ how Woody Grant’s a millionaire,” Bernie exclaims. “Well, that’s the most exciting news around here for ages!” With the same scowl and slightly confused squint we’ve gotten to know over the past hour, Woody shrugs off the whole town’s excitement. “It’s no big deal,” he mutters.
One could reimagine Woody’s blasé response as being a kind of comment on the filmography of director Alexander Payne. The American filmmaker, whose six features include About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), makes small, funny movies about sad and average people who do unremarkable things. Nebraska is no exception. The film follows the progress of Woody and David as they drive from Montana to Nebraskain an attempt to collect the old man’s winnings, even though David knows his ailing father has no legitimate claim to any real money. Along the way, they make an extended stopover in Woody’s hometown (the fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska), where the misinformed locals take great interest in Woody’s imaginary windfall. It’s a subtle black comedy with a modest plot, set in a sleepy region of the American Midwest. The film’s climax consists of little more than a new trucker hat and a slow drive down the main street of a small town. Nebraska really ISN’T a big deal.
It is however, like Payne’s other great films, a momentous little picture. It delves into the minutia of real life, allowing its interesting characters to drift free of our cinematic expectations. It takes surprising and frequently hilarious turns, and then stops dead still and stares at the scenery. Like Sideways and About Schmidt in particular, Nebraska has a wonderfully porous plot. It’s a film that seems to let the outside world seep in and take it in unexpected directions – a feeling that is enhanced by Payne’s routine use of non-actors in small supporting roles. The movie embraces some much softer edges than earlier Payne efforts. It deals in gentle fades rather than hard cuts like Sideways, and it manages to maintain a sympathetic tone without pushing the movie into full-blown sentimentality (like in the huge-hearted Descendants). In a lot of ways, Nebraska feels like a more mature piece of work for the filmmaker. And if this is not his single best film, then it’s just as good as any of the others.
Although this is the director’s first movie for which he has not also received a writing credit, Bob Nelson’s screenplay utilises classic Payne tropes, including (but not limited to) small towns, road trips and squirmworthy family reunions. There is an especially intimate sting to these uncomfortable run-ins that somehow makes them just as funny as they are embarrassing. Like Noah Baumbach and Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne is a filmmaker who likes to find humour in the often awkward, unpleasant and appallingly familiar things that his characters go through. Despite moments in the script that threaten to nudge some of the more larger-than-life Hawthorne locals into the realm of caricature, there is an enormous affection for these characters, as exemplified in a key exchange involving June Squibb as Woody’s snappy wife Kate. Caught in a confrontation with some sour relatives, the deceptively snide Kate finally comes into full view in one of the film’s most (unexpectedly) moving scenes. She also delivers what surely must be the most perfectly emphasised expletive in recent film history.
Phedon Papamichael’s drab black-and-white cinematography deadens the world of Nebraska, forgoing deep blacks in favour of an overall foggy grey that suits the dreary landscape of Hawthorne. It’s a stylistic choice that makes even more sense when the Grants return to Woody’s abandoned childhood home for a morose tour. In another of the film’s best scenes, Papamichael’s camera wanders over the wreckage of a kitchen, and lingers on a broken baby’s cot. In the flat monochrome images, the crumbling homestead is drained of all life. Hawthorne is a dead end for Woody Grant and his family – a place of ancient memories not waiting to be relived.
The success of this film really hinges upon the believability of its actors, and the champion of Nebraska is the great Bruce Dern. The venerable actor shrinks into the well-worn shoes of Woody Grant with an unboastful but richly drawn performance, every bit deserving of his nomination for the Best Actor award at this year’s Oscars. Dern’s work in Nebraska is imperceptible: beneath the white stubble and unkempt hair, it’s hard to believe that Woody’s befuddlement is an act, that his chequered life story is one that was written for the screen. His co-stars turn in consistently strong performances as well. Fellow Oscar nominee, the scene-stealing June Squibb, is memorable as his plucky wife. Will Forte is plain but terrific in the role of dogged straight man David, and it’s fun to see comedian Bob Odenkirk (perhaps better known nowadays as Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman) appearing as David’s older brother, Ross. Stacy Keach is also very effective as the odious Ed Pegram.
Nebraska is a small town movie. It spends a lot of time with ordinary folk – the kind who live small lives, eating in the town’s only restaurant and drinking at the same tiny tavern night after night. It’s a movie that sits quietly during scenes of meandering dialogue, and one that embraces tiny triumphs in lieu of all-encompassing happy endings. If that sounds like your kind of movie, don’t hesitate to go see it. It’s a notable achievement by one of modern American cinema’s greatest filmmakers, featuring a truly superb performance from its lead actor. But, you know… it’s no big deal.
Nebraska is now showing in Australian cinemas