Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach
In UK Cinemas December 6th, 2013

by Joanna Orland

I had lowered expectations for Alexander Payne’s latest drama after his last film The Descendants starring George Clooney was a huge disappointment. In addition, Nebraska stars Will Forte of MacGruber fame and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad‘s Saul) who is wonderful, but comedic in tone. I should not have prejudged any aspect of this film. I was blown away not just by Payne’s redemption, or Forte and Odenkirk underplaying their roles, but by Bruce Dern who gives the performance of his career.

Alexander Payne takes a documentary approach to his narratives. He wants to capture reality in the world, rather than glamourize a story in Hollywood fashion. He has done just this with Nebraska, using his method of casting real people as versions of themselves rather than actors in support roles, which helps the trained actors to play the reality of a scene. It’s not just the people in his film that Payne insists on being real, but for his filming locations, the director insists on location scouting for the right set and to capture it as it really is. This is how the city of Hawthorne is portrayed in Nebraska, allowing it to become a character in itself.

This is Alexander Payne’s best work to date as a filmmaker. He uses nuances and external sources to develop Dern’s character of Woody Grant. The film begins as a father son road trip with David (Forte) and Woody Grant on their way to Lincoln, Nebraska because Woody insists he needs to pick up the million dollar jackpot he believes he’s won after receiving junk mail in the post. David agrees to take his father as he realizes that this is a way for them to bond, and also his life isn’t exactly thriving back home in Montana.

The film evolves from a father and son road trip into an examination of the lost American Dream as David and Woody end up staying with family in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. It evolves further into an exploration on familial relationships with a large extended Grant family on full display. It evolves yet again and becomes somewhat of a nuclear family romp as Woody and David are joined by brother Ross (Odenkirk) and mother Kate (a foul-mouthed and hilarious June Squibb) on a mini adventure filled with humour, character development, and touching moments. The film then comes full circle to explore the father and son bond, and by this point, I have to say that I was welling up. Payne does an excellent job of building this world, family, and most of all, the character of Woody Grant.

It is not merely the traits or histories that the supporting cast endow upon Woody that make him the character that he is – it is Bruce Dern’s strong, subtle and emotionally provocative performance. Payne has said that Dern’s theory on Woody is that this is a guy who is mentally checked out for twenty minutes of every hour, and this is exactly how he is playing him. The comedic and dramatic are balanced perfectly. His mannerisms from the look in his eyes to the way that he walks, show how Dern fully embodies this tragic character. He deservedly won the Best Actor accolades at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and I expect him to do the same at this year’s Oscars.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska has proven that I have feelings! I equally welled up and laughed throughout. The festival is done for me now, there’s nowhere left to go.

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