Monday, January 20, 2014

Nebraska review

Alexander Payne is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood at this point. Payne specializes in making small films that focus on family and characters that you can really relate to. One of my favorite films of 2011 was The Descendants, Payne's film that looked at Hawaii with a much different eye than most other films. His Hawaii was one of sadness, tragedy, and dark humor. Payne returns this year with Nebraska, a film about the bleak, harsh landscape of middle America. Anchored by a solid performance from Bruce Dern and excellent supporting turns from Will Forte and June Squibb, Nebraska is another solid entry into the Alexander Payne canon.

Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly Montana man who thinks that he's won a million dollar sweepstakes prize. Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb), won't take him to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his prize, so he starts walking there himself. Woody's son David (Will Forte) finds him and then agrees to take him to Lincoln. Woody is pretty much out of it most of the time, but is determined to get his million dollars in Lincoln. However, David decides to take a detour into Hawthorne, which is Woody's hometown. What's supposed to be a quick trip to visit family in Hawthorne before getting Woody's prize becomes a quick nightmare, as word of Woody's fortune spreads fast and the residents of the town decide that it's a good idea to get a buck out of the man. 

Nebraska is a bit of a slow movie.  The story isn't really dense or complex and the becomes a bit long-winded near the end. However, Nebraska works so well because director Alexander Payne knows how to make you relate to these characters and maybe find some connection to them. As a person who has family in small-town Midwestern America, I related to the bleak emptiness of Nebraska. There really is nothing in some of these small towns and Nebraska knows that and conveys it with depressing honesty. In addition, the family depicted in this film felt familiar in some way. They're not exactly like my family, but I felt some kind of personal connection, which was interesting. All in all, I really felt like the love and care put into these characters by Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson was what made this movie special.

Another thing that made Nebraska a memorable film was its black and white cinematography. Something about the way that this film is shot makes Nebraska seem like a film from a different era. There's a little grittiness that is thrown on top of the black and white, which adds even more to the impact. I really dug what Payne was going for here with this cinematography and there is absolutely no way that it could have been done any better. It really is one of the strengths of the film and it adds so much. I really wish that more films utilized black and white. I'll never understand why they don't. Of course, it won't work for all films, but in some cases, I think that black and white would be a good fit. 

The performances in Nebraska are also great. Bruce Dern anchors the film and gives a sad, somewhat heartbreaking performance. Dern does a great job acting pretty much like a young kid in an elderly body, and makes you care about the character. I don't think that his performance is one the level of Ejiofor or Bale or some of the other actors this year, but I felt like he did a good job making you care about the character. Will Forte has some great scenes as well and does a really good job in this movie. Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk also have some good scenes in supporting roles. But the real standout is June Squibb. As the spitfire mother Kate, Squibb delivers some of the best lines of the film and does it while making a real, believable character. What a performance.

Nebraska's script is also pretty strong. Bob Nelson did a good at finding interesting little quirks in each character, but also fleshes them out fully. There isn't much to be said about the actual story; it's more of a framework to look at these characters. However, Nelson still manages to hook you with his narrative and you actually get sucked into the story. Credit should also go to Payne for directing the screenplay with such precision. Nebraska is a very well-directed film and I think that Payne did a very good job.

Despite all of the interesting things that make Nebraska a good, unique film, it does still have flaws. The main flaw that I had with Nebraska is that it's simply too long. The film runs for an hour and fifty-five minutes, which normally would be a pretty good, compact runtime. However, Nebraska is a pretty slow, dour film and the length eventually wore on me. There's a little too much time spent in Hawthorne and there are a few scenes that could have been cut out. In addition, the film could end in one spot, but instead it just keeps going. The ending actually is very good, but I still think that Nebraska could be ten or fifteen minutes shorter.

All in all, Nebraska is a very good movie that's definitely different from your typical comedy. The black and white is used to perfection and the characters in this film are superbly written and easy to relate to. Nebraska is a little too long in the middle and could have cut a few scenes out, but in the end, Nebraska is an easy recommendation for me. I think that it's a film that many people will enjoy and I highly recommend that you give it a shot.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                                (8/10)

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