If you look at the other highly-acclaimed films of the past year, they tend to lean towards the "loud" side, either in their execution (like the gloriously bombastic ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’), their praise (the hype around ’12 Years A Slave’ is more passionate than the film itself) or their achievements (‘Gravity’ - enough said). But hidden amongst these films are a few subtle gems worthy of attention. The last of these films to get a release in Australia is ‘Nebraska’, the latest from the quietly incredible Alexander Payne, and believe me, the best has been saved until last.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous retiree in his 70s, has received a letter in the mail informing him that he has won one million dollars. All he has to do is return the letter to the address. Rather than trusting the mail with it, Woody decides he needs to take the letter there himself, to an address in Lincoln, Nebraska. The problem is, Woody can’t drive, and insists on walking to Lincoln, hundreds of miles away, so his son David (Will Forte), knowing the letter is a scam, takes Woody on a road trip to Lincoln to clear the whole mess up, stopping in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne on the way. Woody is convinced there is a fortune waiting for him, no matter what David says, but Woody’s faculties beginning to fade, and this might be the last chance David has to spend time with his father.
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From the moment it begins, ‘Nebraska’ demonstrates a visual and narrative poetry we rarely get to see in American film. Payne and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have chosen to shoot the film in black and white, and this gives it a timeless classic quality that elevates what could have been a charming story about old age into a gorgeous cinematic fable. The film moves at a considered yet rollicking pace, bolstered by Bob Nelson’s incredible screenplay. At its heart, ‘Nebraska’ is essentially a comedy, as we watch David grapple with Woody’s delusion and how quickly the town is taken by it. The cast is mostly made up of seniors in the twilight of their lives, and their comic timing is impeccable. But what makes the film so powerful is that this is never done in jest of the characters. We don’t laugh at them, we celebrate the way they have embraced what life offers them and their dreams of something better. The filmmaking is exquisite, from the gorgeous cinematography to the snappy, witty editing to Mark Orton’s incredible score.
It seems that with every film, Payne is stripping his filmmaking back to a greater level of simplicity, and always to positive effect. There’s no fat on this film, nothing extraneous in the storytelling or the execution, and in a career that already includes a number of great films, Payne has finally delivered a genuine classic. There hasn’t previously been a better demonstration of how impressive an artist this man is.
From the moment it begins, ‘Nebraska’ demonstrates a visual and narrative poetry we rarely get to see in American film.
The same level of excellence is present in the performances - across the board, this is one of the finest ensembles in a film in a long time. Will Forte is tremendous as our everyman eyes and ears through which we can observe and care about the actions of his parents. It’s to his credit that he steps out of the way and is happy to observe until the final act, when he is able to take charge and deliver the film’s beautiful finale. Also exemplary is June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate. Poor Kate is at the end of her tether with Woody’s delusions, and Nelson’s screenplay gives her some of the most bombastic and acidic insults. Squibb’s performance is a comedy triumph, delivered with a deft bluntness that is nothing but gorgeous. This plays beautifully against the great triumph of the film - Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody. Where Kate is loud and opinionated, Woody is quiet and delicate, a man weighed down by his years but operating on a small hope still bubbling away inside him, a hope rekindled by this promised million dollars. Dern is incredibly detailed in his performance, open to the beauty in Woody without ignoring his darker side. Where most big performances from leading men this year have been high on emotion and expression, Dern operates on the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing showy or distracting. Without making a fuss, he might have delivered the performance of the year from a male actor (Cannes certainly believed so when they awarded him Best Actor earlier in the year).
It’s hard to really capture the magic of ‘Nebraska’ in words. It captures that delicate balance between artistry and entertainment, deeply moving yet incredibly funny. Alexander Payne has proved once again how great an artist he is, and revels in the talents of his incredible cast and collaborators. There’s no doubt ‘Nebraska’ is a new American classic, an absolute treasure and one of the best films of the decade. You simply cannot miss this film.