Film review: NEBRASKA, from Built For Speed

Nebraska is exactly the sort of film that generates instant Oscar buzz, a quirky yet solemn tale of crumbling dreams and redemption steeped in Americana and anchored by an idiosyncratic Becket-esque performance.

Bruce Dern plays irascible scraggly-haired old drunk Woodrow Grant who, sadly, floats in a state between retirement and encroaching dementia. Mistakenly believing that a sweepstakes letter guarantees him a million dollar prize, he sets off on foot from his home in Montana to collect the windfall in Lincoln, Nebraska a mere 700 miles away.  After numerous failed attempts to convince Woody that the prize is bogus, Woody’s exasperated son David (Will Forte) decides the only way to kill this obsession and prevent Woody from becoming a missing person is to drive him to the sweepstakes office.  The film transforms into a road trip as David and Woody traverse the American mid-west in pursuit of Woody’s non-existent prize.   A stopover in Woody’s old home town of Hawthorne Nebraska excavates long buried secrets and sees unwelcome encounters with money- hungry family members and Woody’s slimy former friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach)

With its austere black and white cinematography, misanthropic characters, sparse folky music and vast, desolate Midwestern landscapes this could have been a turgid wallow in the misery of ageing and sunken dreams. Surprisingly, much of the film is played for laughs due to the quirky behaviour of its oddball characters. There are plenty of genuinely funny sequences involving these people but occasionally the depiction of small town Midwestern folk becomes too demeaning with Hawthorne seemingly composed of obese, greedy simpletons. 

A few hick stereotypes aside, this film, like Director Alexander Payne’s Sideways and The Descendants is a wonderfully perceptive examination of human relations, the way people attempt to address their life’s disappointments and of the odd way in which people respond when taken out of their normal environment.

Dern snared a Palm d’or at Cannes for his performance here and it’s understandable as he delivers a convincing and emotionally engaging performance that despite a few affectations such as an Ahab-like limp, never goes over the top.  He makes Woody a sad and lost character but one with just enough grit and determination to prevent him from seeming pathetic.  Will Forte’s smug, droll David provides a striking counterpoint to Woody although Forte seems more suited to the film’s comic moments rather than the more serious dramatic scenes.  Stacy Keach, now in his seventh decade as a film actor, is wonderfully sleazy and even menacing as the nefarious Ed Pegram.  Bob Odendirk also provides some amusing moments as Woody’s other son who as a local TV newsreader is supposedly the successful one. The standout, though, is June Squibb as Woody’s feisty, contemptuous and utterly tactless wife Kate who delights in pointing out which townsfolk are dead or were considered whores. Looking like an ageing Ewok and firing off the zingers like Rodney Dangerfield, she’s a riot every time she’s on screen.

With echoes of quirkmeisters Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and even David Lynch there’s something  familiar about this film but a fine cast, a strong script from Bob Nelson and assured if laid-back direction from Alexander Payne make this a thoroughly engaging film from the opening scene to the last.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Alexander Payne.

Release date: 20th Feb 2014

Running time:  115 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 


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