Film Review: Nebraska

by Carrie Kahn on November 22, 2013

Just in time for the holidays: The joy and Payne of family

David (Will Forte, right) discusses his stubborn father (Bruce Dern, left) with his exasperated mother (June Squibb).

David (Will Forte, right) discusses his stubborn father (Bruce Dern, left) with his exasperated mother (June Squibb).

We are heading into the time of the year when studios typically release what they hope are their best films, the ones they want to be fresh in the minds of Academy members for Oscar Best Picture voting. Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) gets into this game with Nebraska, sure to be a contender in many categories come Oscar time. Beautifully shot in black and white and filled with nuanced and sensitive performances, the picture brilliantly melds Payne’s signature quirkiness with charm, emotional honesty, and wry humor.

The film focuses on the Grant family: husband Woody (Bruce Dern) and wife Kate (June Squibb) are small town Nebraska natives who have raised their sons David (Lafayette’s own Will Forte – Acalanes High, ’88) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) in Billings, Montana. Kate was a hairdresser, Woody a mechanic, and David sells electronics, while Ross is an up-and-coming local news anchor. When Woody receives a Publisher’s Clearing House-type “You May be a Million Dollar Winner” sweepstakes notice, he believes it unwaveringly, and sets out (unsuccessfully, and rather dangerously) to the contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. To pacify both the stubborn Woody and the irritated Kate, David agrees to drive Woody from Billings to Lincoln to try and claim the prize.

What follows is a film that combines all the best elements of a buddy movie, a road trip adventure, and a father-son story. As Woody and David make their way to Lincoln, the hard-drinking, taciturn yet cantankerous Woody and the sweet but melancholy David bond and make discoveries about their family and themselves in a way that is never saccharine or cloying, but always smart and sharply true.

Some critics have accused Payne of being condescending towards his Midwest characters, but I would strongly disagree with that charge, particularly in this film. A Nebraska native, Payne here directs a script penned by Bob Nelson, a television writer who grew up in South Dakota. These two obviously know very well the people, places, and customs of the region, and they showcase their home with warmth, humor, and compassion. Anyone who has ever spent even a small amount of time in one of the so-called “fly-over” states will recognize the veracity of the houses, main streets, businesses, jobs, and bars portrayed here. And the characters actually feel like real people who would live in the manner presented, not like stock types out of central casting; filming on location in Nebraska, Payne reportedly used locals as extras in many scenes.

As for the principal cast, Bruce Dern has already received much acclaim for his role (he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes), and deservedly so: he inhabits Woody so completely that you may worry about Dern’s own physical and mental health after the film ends. But Will Forte’s performance should not be overlooked; he’s a revelation, and holds his own with Dern in every scene. As David, Forte deftly conveys the mixed emotions of a frustrated yet loving small-town son who seems puzzled to find himself grown up, but not exactly happy or satisfied, without quite knowing why. He both resents his silent father, yet still wants his approval, and, despite Woody’s flaws, wants to do right by him.

Those who know Forte only from his Saturday Night Live comedy sketches like “MacGruber” will be surprised and amazed by his total transformation here. With his watchful, almost mournful eyes and hangdog face, Forte conveys a broad spectrum of emotions with just the slightest facial movements. Watch the scene in which David quietly observes a conversation between Woody and Woody’s old friend and business partner Ed (Stacy Keach); in just a few seconds, we witness an entire thought process flash across Forte’s face, and can literally see David weighing the merits of a key decision he’s considering in that minute. It’s a masterful moment.

June Squibb, too, is exceptional as the fiery, fierce, and often ribald Kate, alternatively exasperated to no end and tender, loyal, and loving, sometimes within the same minute. My only quibble with this character – – which is not a fault of Squibb’s performance, but of Nelson’s character creation – – is that Kate’s strident saltiness is no doubt intended to be humorous, but instead often comes dangerously close to caricature; a scene in which she does something mildly crude while visiting a deceased former suitor’s grave is played for laughs, but ultimately feels more embarrassing than funny.

The stark black and white cinematography deserves a mention, as it perfectly captures and enhances the story. The vivid images of desolate main streets, empty stretches of highway, and sparse farmland all serve to underscore the film’s themes of connection, loss, loneliness, love, and forgiveness. Visually and tonally, then, the picture delivers a story that is both eloquently simple and powerfully resonant. Payne has succeeded in creating a heartfelt look at the heartland, and his vision is well worth seeing.


Nebraska opens in Bay Area theaters today.



Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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