Woody, a man from Missouri, is convinced that he has won one million dollars from a magazine sweepstakes. His son, against his mother’s wishes, reluctantly agrees to drive his aging father to Nebraska to collect his “winnings” but also to escape his routine oriented day to day life.
This is a quiet film that grounds itself in its effortless sentimentality. Shot entirely in black and white, for the short attention spanned audience, to stay actively engaged to the story and the characters need to be interesting and watchable and they undoubtedly are.
Director Alexander Payne and writer Bon Nelson have created a film that talks about regrets but refused to suffocate their characters with them, they’ve written a film about lessons learned, near misses and deep rooted affection for your family and how such a small moment can chance the course of your life. Nebraska is all about the little things.
Much of this is elevated by the moving and nuanced performances by the cast. Much praise has been given to Bruce Dern’s turn as Woody, playing him quiet, reserved and often bemused by the people and actions around him. While I don’t believe it’s as tour de force as others seem to believe, it’s a sweet and understated performance that bypasses the showy moments, allowing his highs to be more enjoyable and his lows to be more affecting. It’s a truly gifted performance despite its limitations and it wont be surprising if in the next few months we see his name mentioned more and more for Oscar contention.
Will Forte plays not quite against type as David, Woody’s son who has yet to be completely disillusioned by his father and gives a steady and relatable performance.
However it is ultimately June Squibb as Woody’s long suffering wife Kate who does the most with what she is given and who steals nearly all of the scenes she’s in. She’s energetic, she’s touching and she has all of the laugh out loud lines. She is a name to watch as critics continue to uniformly love her.
The cast as a whole is stellar with supporting players such as Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk showcasing the talent that signs on when Payne’s name is in question.
The drawbacks are slight but present: the first act has an uneven pacing, stilted and uneven until the two characters hit the road. The second is the two characters playing David’s cousins who are the only two caricatures in a story filled with very honest portraits of real people, completely changing the movies tone whenever they’re onscreen.
Despite this Payne has created something special. The genre is always in flux between comedy and drama depending on what stage our characters are in. He expertly allows the camera to simultaneously tell a story along without characters. This is highlighted in an ending sequence that showcases the point of view that David sees his father in.
Not all films need bombastic narratives or storytelling methods and oftentimes it’s the closer to the heart movies that reach the largest audience. Nebraska showcases the woes of growing older and the problems with regret, the day to day monotony of a man who feels his life is at a stalemate and how the littlest items, gestures or moments can seem the grandest and the most crucial in our eyes.
Heartwarming and self-aware, Nebraska is out in limited release now.