Nebraska (2013)


"Nebraska" is full of complicated people marked by flaws and failures, mistakes and regrets; they can be selfish bastards, too. It often feels as though Payne is trying to strip away the cliché that the region is populated exclusively by hardworking, decent hearted types, But for all the cragginess Woody exudes with his etched face and mess of white hair, he has also inspired a great deal of love in this director. The film's starkly beautiful final images have a poignancy that might leave a lump in your throat.

The movie focuses on the pathetic, quixotic quest of Woody Grant, a senile and alcohol-addled Korean War veteran. Woody is not only foolish enough to believe he's won a million dollars from one of those sweepstakes letters that the rest of us customarily toss in the trash, he's also insistent on collecting his winnings personally. 

We first meet Woody trudging bow-leggedly up the highway, wandering through traffic, apparently intent on walking the 750 miles to collect his winnings. Returned home by the police, Woody sets straight out again on his pilgrimage, despite his family's insistence that there is no pot of gold waiting for him at the end of this scam mail-marketing rainbow. Eventually his harassed son David (Will Forte) decides it's safer to just drive the old fool to Lincoln, and so they hit the road, stopping en route in Woody's old home town of Hawthorne, where a careless word about their mission makes him the subject of local gossip, celebrity and (inevitably) greed.

 David seems like one of the good guys. A single and struggling electronics salesman, he trudges along in work and in life. He and his father aren't terribly close because Woody isn't terribly close to anyone; family is the expected phenomenon that just sort of formed around him at some point. But when Woody keeps pressing to pick up his prize money, David sees an opportunity to spend some time together, and maybe even enjoy some long-overdue father-son bonding. So they hop in David's car, to the frustration and disgust of Woody's loyal and long-suffering wife, Kate, played by scene-stealer June Squibb. Don't let this woman's diminutive size and frumpy wardrobe fool you: she is a formidable force, a foulmouthed voice of reason. 

This is a rare film that Payne directed but didn't help write—the script comes from Bob Nelson—but it nevertheless allows the filmmaker to return to his home state, which was also the setting for the high school satire "Election" and the road movie "About Schmidt." The sense of place is unshakable. "Nebraska" is shot in bleak black-and-white by Payne's frequent cinematographer Phedon Papamichael ("Sideways," "The Descendants"). It's a choice that highlights the story's prevailing sense of melancholy and decay rather than trying to impose a cloying nostalgia. 

"Processed in grainy black and white (the crisp digital image has been degraded to approximate arcane monochrome celluloid) and owing a tonal debt to David Lynch's sentimental road movie The Straight Story, Nebraska tunes its bittersweet "personal journey" riffs to the plaintive waltz of picked guitars and lyrical fiddles, played out against a backdrop of fading midwest towns and long, lonesome interstates."


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