Review: Nebraska (2013)

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Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Missy Doty & Angela McEwan
Runtime: 115 min // Certificate: 15


It’s been quite some time since I lasted watched a film as simultaneously depressing and uplifting as Nebraska. With its bleak undertones, its sumptuous yet grainy cinematography and its few-holds barred approach to the banal trivialities of existence, it is a film that traverses – rather expertly in my view – the very thin line between realism and absurdity, yet one that is also brimming with wit, warmth and a curious amount of positivity. Though far from a life-enhancer, Nebraska is a candid and thought-provoking film that explores those basic fears that we’ll all have to face at some point in our lives, doing so with genuine dark humour and restrained tragedy.

Hot off the heels of his success with The Descendants, Alexander Payne returns to his exploration of the intricate wonder hidden with the most innate aspects of humanity with this Oscar-worthy film. His reserved, unassuming direction – in combination with Bob Nelson’s fiercely witty screenplay – makes for a film that gets deep to the heart of those selfish motivations that make us all tick (whether or not we care to admit it) yet one that does so with honest, relatable characters. The film packs a refreshing authenticity, with a style that is downbeat, often pessimistic yet, at the same time, confident and oddly endearing. Despite a slow start, Nebraska soon blossoms into one of the most heartfelt stories of 2013 and only rarely descends into mawkishness or oversentimentality.

The plot of Nebraska is striking in its simplicity, which is a large part of what makes it so appealing. Woody (Dern), a borderline-senile, retired old man, receives a letter from a callous scam-marketing company informing him that he’s won $1million. In order to claim his prize, all he has to do is travel to an office in Lincoln, Nebraska. Alas, Lincoln is over 750 miles away from Billings, Montana, where he lives with his wife Kate (Squibb). After he has a number of run-ins with the police, who keep stopping him walking down the highway, his exasperated son David (Forte) eventually decides to drive his Father to Lincoln in order to prove to him that he wasn’t won a single cent. After an arduous drive, the two of them stop off in Hawthorne – Woody’s hometown – where, on learning of their old friend’s newfound “wealth”, the residents start demanding payment for old debts. Secrets are dredged up and ancient rivalries resurface but all Woody wants to do is get to Lincoln before someone else claims his prize…

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At its heart, Nebraska’s sole concern is human drama. What might come across as a depressive film is in fact a rather positive one, though – just like in real life – you have to dredge through a lot of misery to encounter any joy. Nebraska takes a bunch of ridiculous but relatable individuals, gives them something to fight about (in this case, money) and then allows the chaos to unfold. Payne and Nelson both view money with suspicion, perhaps even scorn, as throughout the film it is Woody’s wealth – which doesn’t even exist – that drives a wedge between people. The reductive effect of two diametrically opposed yet intrinsically linked evils – wealth and poverty – on this small, traditional town in Nebraska is striking, and though it is primarily a human drama, Nebraska taps into the idea that we are all driven by greed and consumerism rather beautifully.

Of course, the rock upon which all of these ideas are built is Woody. Bruce Dern, an actor who has been constantly and criminally underappreciated throughout his career, is utterly charming and pitches it just right at every turn. A simple facial expression, a mannerism or a tic tell you far more about this wonderfully complex man than Nelson’s screenplay, which sometimes borders on cloying, can. Dern doesn’t just play Woody as confused; he plays him as lost too. He’s a man out of water; a sweet, loving man who cannot understand why his old neighbours, friends and relatives are being so demanding. He’s out of sync with modern life, and he is a man who looks back and sees, rather tragically, nothing but missed opportunities and misery.

Through Woody, and through his wife and sons, Payne and Nelson are able to explore concurrent themes, each of which strikes a blow with the audience on a different level. That friendships are so easily ruined by money seems obvious (though it’s a notion that is still well-handled) yet scratch beneath the surface and you find a film about the fear of aging, the desire to succeed and even the awful realisation that you regret most, if not all, of your life. That all of these rather drab ideas are explored with such gorgeous humour makes it all the more engaging. Indeed, there’s even some rich dark humour in the sheer notion of a man who is trying to escape from his current life and, in doing so, ends up smack bang in the middle of the past he left behind.

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Where Nebraska flounders, and it’s a criticism I’ve seen a number of people address, is in its representation of a certain class of person. The humour employed to portray the working class is, at times, a little crass and though the three main characters are rich (metaphorically speaking) and complex, the supports are all a bit one-dimensional. Nevertheless, they serve their purpose well and one can’t deny that the film is very funny. The humour might not derive from realism but it does come from an only slightly exaggerated form of reality, which is probably why it’s so effective and affecting.

A case in point here is the character of Kate. She’s your typical matriarch; brash, loud and unafraid to “tell it like it is”, as they say. She spends pretty much the entire film on the verge of caricature, yet that moment when she kisses Woody on the cheek – one of the tenderest moments in the entire film – she demonstrates just how real she is. The harsh tongue, the ennui and the passive-aggression are all a front for a woman who just wants to protect the man she loves so terribly deeply. Squibb’s performance is fantastic, Kate’s lines are hysterical and she is a fully-rounded woman.

Nebraska is sweet, charming and warm. It’s also bleak and depressing, though not overly so. It’s the type of film that strikes a number of chords with a wide audience as it taps into basic fears, desires and regrets. Payne’s direction is marvellous, Nelson’s screenplay is hilarious and though you know how it’s going to end, those last few minutes are still utter perfection. It ain’t gonna win any Oscars (unfortunately) but I think Nebraska will go down as one of the best and most heartfelt films of 2013. A real triumph!