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Thursday, November 14, 2013

NEBRASKA Review: NYFCS Opening Night

(Left to right) Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, June Squibb is Kate Grant and Will Forte is David Grant in NEBRASKA, from Paramount Vantage in association with FilmNation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment.
Photo credit: Merie Wallace
© MMXIII Paramount Vantage, A Division of Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved

2013, 115 minutes
Rated R for some language

Review by Joshua Handler

Alexander Payne has made a career of making films about families learning to come together or people learning to live.  His latest film, Nebraska, merges those two themes with its story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, Cannes Best Actor-winner), an elderly man who goes on a trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son, David (Will Forte), after receiving a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize in the mail telling him he has won $1,000,000.  David and Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb), see right through it, but Woody doesn't.  

Nebraska is a film of small moments and character.  Bruce Dern gives one of the best performances of the year as Woody.  Dern has been around for years and has worked with a variety of great directors, but has never gotten the attention he deserves.  Payne's decision to have Dern lead Nebraska was a masterstroke.  Dern's performance is one of the most deeply-felt and quietly emotional I've seen this year.  Dern barely says a word, but conveys so much through his face and takes advantage of individual moments to shine.  In one scene, Woody visits his childhood house with his wife and two sons.  Going through this house conjures up many painful memories for Woody and through every move of Dern's face, every wince, every word, we understand.  This scene is one of the most powerfully-acted of the year.  It ranks up with Captain Phillips' finale and a climactic scene from Blue is the Warmest Color.  As support, Will Forte gives a heartfelt performance as David.  He nails almost every comedic and dramatic beat.  Keeping up alongside someone like Dern is a challenge and Forte really rises to it.  Squibb is wonderful as Kay, a hardened woman with a loving, caring interior.  She fully crafts her character and is best during a scene in a graveyard where her racy side comes out.

Bob Nelson's screenplay is quietly beautiful and Payne's typically understated direction perfectly complements it.  Payne and Nelson capture the rural Midwest in a manner that is very respectful of the region and its people.  While they do throw in situations that derive their comedy from the people in the Midwest, they still provide a heartfelt depiction of the region.  It is a moving depiction of a region of the country largely forgotten by Hollywood, and Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white cinematography makes the plainness of the Midwest look stunning.

With Nebraska, Payne, Nelson, and cast explore our hometowns' ability to stay with us and affect us throughout our lives.  Woody lived in his hometown for a long time before moving to Billings and through the different people David encounters around town, he learns about his father's past and about how his father became the man he is today.  Each one of these encounters cracks at the mystery of Woody.  Woody's life has been tough and the events that occurred in his hometown shaped him and never left.  David is our guide through the town and we learn about Woody at the pace that he does.  By the end, Payne, Nelson, and cast have created a full heartbreaking portrait of a man who was never able to follow his dreams.

The screening of Nebraska that I attended was opening night of the New York Film Critics Series and was followed by a Q&A with Dern, Forte, and Squibb that was moderated by Peter Travers, film critic for Rolling Stone.  The reverence that each actor had for the others and Payne was extraordinary.  Dern said that this role, along with Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, was the most personal role he'd done.  He said that 80% of the job is casting for Alexander Payne and that once he was on set, there was nothing to prove because "you know you're the person [you're playing]."  "Getting the role of Woody is the best honor I've ever had," said Dern.  When asked which scene resonated with him the most, Dern answered that it was the scene where Woody goes through his childhood home: "You must go home again and see who you are and what you came from and that these people were a lot bigger in life than you gave them credit for being."  And that is a big takeaway from the film and Woody's journey - people must understand and accept their past before moving on.  They must also realize that success isn't measured in living a big life - success is measured in happiness and Woody realizes that while many of the people he reunites with live simple lives, they are happy and that accounts for more than any of the riches in the world.  The $1,000,000 won't buy him happiness.  Acceptance from his family will.  And, for Dern, the takeaway was "[t]hank God he [Woody] still dares to dream."  Woody may look like a fool for dreaming, but it is a miracle that he continues to do so.


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