Introduction

Nebraska

Nebraska
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2013
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Running time: 115 minutes
  • Official website: www.NebraskaMovie.co.uk
 

Nebraska is a bitter-sweet comic road-trip undertaken by a stubborn old man, Woody (BRUCE DERN), and his son David (WILL FORTE). Dern's wonderfully nuanced performance won him the Best Actor award at Cannes and director ALEXANDER PAYNE (Sideways, The Descendants) was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Consummately well-crafted, Nebraska is 'always funny and smart' (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian) and has been tipped for Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Leading Actor, Leading Actress, Original Screenplay, Original Soundtrack and Cinematography.

Woody insists on going to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Montana, 750 miles away, to claim a id="mce_marker" million sweepstake prize he thinks he's won but which is clearly a scam. In order to humour his father and spend some time with him, David offers to drive him on this seemingly futile trip, despite opposition from his exasperated mother, Kate (JUNE SQUIBB).

Bedraggled Woody is cranky and confused, which could be down to either dementia or alcoholism. His drinking leads to an accident that forces the travellers to spend a weekend in Woody's old home town, Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Kate and their other son, TV anchorman Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them.

For a while, everyone in Hawthorne thinks he has won a million dollars. He is feted but some people, not least Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (STACY KEACH), see an opportunity for themselves. Long-standing grudges and family secrets come to the surface.

Woody's journey is really a last shot at showing he counts for something. The poignancy of this is juxtaposed with some very funny observations about Midwesterners' dour matter-of-factness. In the case of Kate, her 'furious plain speaking' is a joy (Derek Malcolm, the London Evening Standard), with Squibb giving a 'cracking performance' (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian).

As if to reflect the focus on past events, the film is shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, which looks 'breathtaking' (Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly).

The script is partly based on writer Bob Nelson's own family history in Illinois and the film features a number of non-actors recruited through ads on local radio stations.

Re-view

Nebraska

SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR

'The fiction of Woody's lottery payout is almost as good as the non-existent fact. Bogus riches bring Woody acclaim, status, prestige. As for the cash, all he can think of to buy is a new truck. The money wouldn't change his life. But fantasy money really has changed it.'

(PETER BRADSHAW, THE GUARDIAN)

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Glieberman described director Alexander Payne's work as a genre in itself: 'The leisurely, semi-planted version of the road trip structure; the classically framed images of a falling-down American middle class that Hollywood is no longer in touch with and no longer knows how to show us; [and] the earnest, damaged heroes with their family ties and demons.'

Like Payne's earlier road-trip films, About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), Nebraska is a 'finely etched study of flawed characters stuck in life's well worn grooves' (Scott Foundas, Variety).

Left behind

Bruce Dern is 'simply marvellous' as Woody. 'Looking suitably dishevelled and sometimes dazed, he conveys the full measure of a man who has fallen short of his own expectations, [and] resisting the temptation to overplay, [he] lets his wonderfully weathered face course with subtle shades of sorrow, self-loathing and indignation' (Scott Foundas, Variety).

Asked about his life, Woody says, "I don't remember, it doesn't matter." His vacant demeanour and bleak perspective reflect the windswept, featureless scenery as he and David travel. He seems obsolete, like the boarded-up shops of Hawthorne.

The economic decay in America's heartland is thrown into stark relief by the black-and-white photography. Phedon Papamichael's elegant widescreen imagery evokes The Last Picture Show (1971) as 'a eulogy for a bygone America' (Scott Foundas, Variety). Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter concurred: 'The emptied look of Hawthorne makes it resemble the town in The Last Picture Show, but without the teenagers; there are only old people here... [and this] quietly contribute[s] to the feel of time and opportunity having passed by.'

The plaintive, guitar-based score by Mark Orton also contributes to the film's wistful quality and is 'a constant source of pleasure' (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter).

The characters' plain-speaking makes for humour that is laced with pathos. This is true not only of Kate's outbursts but also more deadpan dialogue, such as when Woody's brother complains his foot hurts. "It's OK, it just hurts." "Everything else OK?" "Not really." 'Throughout, Payne gently infuses the film's comic tone with strains of longing and regret, always careful to avoid the maudlin or cheaply sentimental' (Scott Foundas, Variety).

Feeling like a million dollars

People are eager to celebrate Woody's apparent success. This has echoes of Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), in which a returning soldier (also named Woody) is not believed when he says he didn't see service and is given a hero's welcome. 'Everyone, it seems, wants − or perhaps needs − to believe in Woody's dream as much as he does' (Scott Foundas, Variety).

The eagerness of family members and locals to get a share of the loot recalls the land inheritance at stake in Payne's last film, The Descendants (2011). Faced with demands for money, Woody's family are drawn closer together and seem rejuvenated, the sons getting into fights and stealing on their father's behalf with their mother's backing.              

Something to leave behind

Nebraska also calls to mind the true story of the journey undertaken by a stubborn farmer in David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999). Too old to drive a car, he travelled across the Midwest on a lawnmower, accompanied by his daughter, in order to see his brother one last time. Viewers learn about long-kept secrets through his various encounters.

As David travels with his father, he gains an insight into crucial events in Woody's past too. Nebraska is 'genuinely touching' in affording a glimpse of 'the powerful entirety of even the most ordinary life' (Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly).

The journey brings out Woody's dignity and the desire, deep inside him, to put things right with his family. 'Woody's quest is really a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to life' (Scott Foundas, Variety).

 
Pro-files

Nebraska

BRUCE DERN

WOODY GRANT
BRUCE DERN
ALEXANDER PAYNE DIRECTS BRUCE DERN

Winning the prestigious Best Actor award at this year's Cannes festival for his performance in Nebraska has been hailed as a comeback moment for the 77-year-old actor. But Bruce Dern has never really been away, having acted in more than 80 feature films since starting out in the early 1960s.

Born into a prominent Illinois family in 1936 (one grandfather was Governor of Utah and Roosevelt's Secretary of War from 1933 to 1936), Dern dropped out of university in order to join famed director Elia Kazan's Actors Studio. There followed a number of small parts – "the third cowboy from the right," he once said – in popular western and science fiction television series such as The Virginian (1964-5) and Rawhide (1965).

Tall and imposing, and with a wide grin that could turn wolfish, Dern was spotted by Alfred Hitchcock, who cast him as a heavy in his 1964 psychological thriller Marnie. His reputation for playing villains was sealed when he achieved notoriety in the 1972 western The Cowboys as a cattle thief who shoots John Wayne's character in the back.

Wayne was reported to have joked that audiences would never forgive Dern for the act, but the 1970s saw the young actor take on a string of leading-men roles that were big hits at the box office. He brought a soulful fragility to his portrayal of an astronaut, marooned on a spacecraft, in the heart-rending 1972 science fiction film Silent Running. He was exuberantly charming as an aspiring businessman hatching up a hairbrained scheme with his reluctant brother (played by Dern's friend Jack Nicholson) in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role as millionaire Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1974). And Hitchcock cast him again, this time as the hero of his 1976 comedy thriller, Family Plot.

A career highlight was the Academy and Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor nominations he received for his performance as a cuckolded marine in Coming Home (1978), a moving drama about the impact of the Vietnam War back in America.

Dern settled into character-actor roles during the 1980s and 1990s. If his profile dropped (for a time he was as well known as the father of Laura Dern, the only child from his 1960s marriage to Diane Ladd, as for his own work), he was no less busy. His performance in the role of the unpleasant Uncle Bud in After Dark, My Sweet (1990) earned particular praise.

In a return to his roots playing villains in westerns, he made a memorable appearance as the grizzled slave owner Old Man Carrucan in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012).

WILL FORTE

DAVID GRANT

The 43-year-old comic actor plays the role of mild-mannered David in Nebraska with great restraint. This is especially noteworthy given that he is best known for his 'MacGruber' character, a 1980s action-hero throwback with bad hair and disastrous luck, that he developed for Saturday Night Live.

His eight-year stint on Saturday Night Live from 2002 followed work as a writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, 3rd Rock from the Sun and irreverent US sitcom That '70s Show.

Forte not only wrote but also starred in The Brothers Solomon (2007), about two socially backward brothers, and a movie spin-off of MacGruber. In this splashy 2010 blockbuster pastiche MacGruber is joined by his SNL colleague Kristen Wiig to foil a plan by Val Kilmer to destroy Washington.

Since then Forte has focused on acting in films and television series. Other film roles include That's My Boy (2012) and The Watch (2012). TV roles have included 30 Rock (2007-12), American Dad! (2009-12) and Lab Rats (2012-present). He was also part of the voice cast of the surreal children's animation Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) and its 2013 sequel.

JUNE SQUIBB

KATE GRANT

Eighty-four-year-old June Squibb's career started in theatre in the late 1950s and included a performance as Electra the stripper in the original Broadway production of the musical Gypsy, as well as countless roles in classical drama.

It wasn't until 1990 that she made her movie debut, in a supporting role in Woody Allen's comedy drama Alice. More character parts followed, in films such as Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino (1992) and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993), and TV series such as The Young and the Restless (2008-9).

But it is Nebraska director Alexander Payne who has done most to promote her screen career, casting her as the wife of his lead character in two films: first, opposite Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002) and now in Nebraska.

Squibb's recent on-screen prominence has led to her being cast in one of the buzziest TV shows on right now: the HBO series Girls, as Hannah's grandmother.

BOB ODENKIRK

ROSS GRANT

Like Will Forte, 51-year-old Bob Odenkirk is best known for his performances on US television comedies. He started as a writer and bit-part performer on Saturday Night Live in the late 1980s alongside comics Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. Odenkirk then featured in some of the 1990s' most cutting-edge comedy shows, notably the influential The Ben Stiller Show (1992-3) and the groundbreaking chat-show pastiche The Larry Sanders Show (1993-8).

Nebraska isn’t Odenkirk’s first serious role − he played slippery lawyer Saul Goodman in the hugely successful HBO series Breaking Bad from 2009 and, such is the impact his character had, he is to be given a spin-off series, Better Call Saul. But it’s to comedy that he keeps returning and he recently re-teamed with Ben Stiller for the comedy sketch show Birthday Boys (2013), which began as an on-stage act.

He has also directed three films, including The Brothers Solomon (2007), which featured Nebraska co-star Will Forte.

STACY KEACH

ED PEGRAM

Seventy-two-year-old Stacy Keach has enjoyed a career almost as long as his Nebraska co-star Dern. Unusually for an American, he trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. With his roots in theatre, he returns regularly to the stage, often in Shakespearean plays.

Keach achieved early film success with a memorable performance in veteran director John Huston’s 1972 classic Fat City as a boxer past his prime but determined to get back into the sport. Keach’s muscular, unsentimental performance drew praise and established his credentials for convincing portrayals of tough-guy characters. These were also displayed in his rugged performance as the outlaw Frank James, brother of Jesse (played by Keach’s sibling James) in the 1980 western The Long Riders.

He is probably best known for his work on TV. Most notably, Keach adopted a hardboiled attitude as private eye Mike Hammer, in the long-running US TV series (1984-7 and 1997-8)  based on Mickey Spillane’s novels. He made the role his own with his trademark fedora and wide moustache, which he sports to hide childhood operation scars.

He won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the eponymous novelist in the TV series Hemingway (1988).

ALEXANDER PAYNE

DIRECTOR
ALEXANDER PAYNE

Now aged 52, Alexander Payne is one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. His breakthrough film was 1999 high-school satire Election, starring Matthew Broderick as a scheming college teacher pitted against an ambitious student (Reese Witherspoon). He followed that with About Schmidt (2002), in which a weary widower played by Jack Nicholson embarks on a cross-country road journey. That movie’s critical acclaim presaged the even bigger success of Sideways (2004), a bittersweet comedy about the romantic travails of an unfulfilled oenophile and aspiring novelist (played by Paul Giamatti). His last film, The Descendants (2011), starred George Clooney as a man coping with the fallout from a speedboat accident that has left his wife in a coma.

Payne won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for both Sideways and The Descendants. He was also nominated for the Best Film Oscar for The Descendants and for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Election.

Payne’s movies often depict common real-life problems – ageing, disappointed love, broken families – but he manages to inject his profiles of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy. Payne's acute observations about human foibles and the balance he strikes between dark subject matter and upbeat humour help to explain his exalted reputation.

Many of his films have a very naturalistic, authentic feel. Payne, who is from Omaha, Nebraska, explained during the London Film Festival that his aim in making Nebraska was to present a "version of how things really might be" and for "the banal complications of real life to become the mechanics of the movie". He railed against the "moviefication" and "beautification" of things depicted in films, where they end up looking as if they are from a movie rather than from real life.

 
Cinemas

Nebraska

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