Monday, June 2, 2014

Nebraska: The Midwestern King Lear

Movie Review: Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne

Reviewed: 2 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

In Nebraska, Alexander Payne's latest film, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a hunched over, stubborn and possibly confused patriarch marches along the highway from Billings, Montana towards Lincoln, Nebraska clutching a sweepstakes mailer indicating his claim of a million dollars. His electronic salesman son David (Will Forte) at first dissuades his father and then joins him in his quest, much to the chagrin of Woody's sharp-tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) and David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David, aware that the journey to Lincoln is about more than just the claiming of a million dollars, escapes his own mundane life to care for his aging father and try to reconnect with him, seeing the ravages of time on his father's lined, bandaged face and depleting memory.

Shot in impossibly gorgeous black and white which gives an epic quality to the quest, the father son road trip defies expectations at nearly every turn. Cathartic emotional payoffs are undercut by Woody's fading memory: "I don't remember" he offers when asked about his life when not being openly defiant, unsentimental, or evasive about the hard truths of his past. The undercurrent of painful years swirls beneath this film with Forte's son remembering pouring out his dad's beer, Woody refusing to admit his alcoholism, and potential vipers emerging from within their family. Winning the supposed money brings out the wide-eyed fantasy of wealth from people around Woody, providing a window into the American Dream ("What are you gonna do with that money?" "Get a truck." "I'd get a boat!"). People stop him on the street to congratulate him in his hometown while others plot how to separate him from his fortune. And through it all, Woody seems to nonchalantly slough it off while steadfastly heading towards Lincoln.

I found Payne's composition of shots to be quite funny, including one high-angle shot of the entire Grant clan staring at the Bears-Lions game on television, every brother curiously craning his neck to stare at the answer to a question about driving time. Kate is as verbose as Woody is reticent, and the film comes alive every time June Squibb is in a scene. Her speeches at the local cemetery are show stoppers. Her love for Woody is complex, a mixture of invective and denigration along with soft-hearted acts of kindness and vicious defense of his character in the wake of family accusations.

The lead acting performances by Dern and Forte are very strong, and Dern's is an almost silent, brokenly regal style, taking everything in, but often not letting us to far inside of his character's mind. Forte's son constantly must reevaluate the man that he believes his father to be after learning unseen truths (or lies) about him from estranged family, old friends, and possible futures. The set-up leads to the inevitable arrival in Lincoln with a muted, understated payoff that feels right. Payne's characters are concerned about legacy and what can be bequeathed from a parent to a child. I admired the way the script plays up the competition between David and Ross but does not allow that to be the defining characteristic of their relationship. As brothers, they make a late-film decision to reclaim a part of their father's honor that ends up being quite madcap and funny.

What Payne did in his marvelous film The Descendants is represent intense family pain onscreen, and he proves adept at doing that here in Nebraska. Yet, I found myself laughing quite a bit as well as moved to tears at least twice at the end, so despite its stark style and stunning black and white imagery, the film crackles with an energy and feels remarkably lived-in. Nearly everyone in the film is older, and how rare is it to see scenes inside of family homes with older family members not reduced to simple stereotypes. A scene lingers for me of Woody returning to the farmhouse where he was raised. With its broken furniture, windows looking out to beautiful farm country, and the haunting specter of memory, Woody stands in his parents' room, perhaps for the first time, remarking, "This was my parents' room. I got whipped if they found me in here. I guess nobody's gonna whip me now." The examination of the past does not always yield hallmark card sentiments, and Woody Grant's journey is bracingly free of such sentiment, though the ending does offer up its own ideas about children and parents that some may find maudlin, but I loved it. I really recommend this film.

As stated in Shakespeare's play of parents and children King Lear, "In jest, there is truth."

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