Nebraska: Film review - 'elegiac in tone'


The film has emotional kick precisely because its style is so austere

When Bruce Dern was a young actor playing Tom Buchanan in the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby (1974), the former athlete used to run all the way from his hotel in central London to Pinewood Studios in time for the day’s shooting. Now, at the tail end of his career, he is cast as a character embarked on an equally unlikely and epic journey. Woody Grant (Dern) is a frail old man who has got it into his head that he has won $1m in a magazine marketing competition. He is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up his winnings.

Nebraska is director Alexander Payne’s sixth feature and almost certainly his best. It has a tenderness for its protagonists that wasn’t always there in Payne’s earlier films, such as Election, About Schmidt and Sideways. The film, beautifully shot in widescreen black and white, manages to be elegiac in tone without sacrificing Payne’s trademark caustic humour and his forensic focus on the foibles and pretensions of his troubled characters.

Dern, previously most famous for shooting John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys and for his work in 1970s classics such as Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, gives a magisterial performance as the cantankerous and confused Woody – small-town Montana’s answer to King Lear.

“Where you headed to?” Woody is asked by a cop who stops him as he is shuffling down the highway on his Quixotic journey to redeem his winnings. He simply points in the direction he is going.

At the start of the film, everybody is exasperated with Woody, his long-suffering, foul-mouthed wife Kate (June Squibb) most of all. He drinks too much. He has been a neglectful father to his two sons. He never made much money in his life. The talk is of putting him in a home as soon as possible. Almost as a last resort, his son David (Will Forte) takes time off from his dead-end job in an electrical goods store to drive Woody to Lincoln.

In these early scenes, there is an utter absence of sentimentality. Dern certainly doesn’t play Woody as a sweet-natured old man. We are made aware fully of why he drives his family to distraction. David’s attempts to humour him come to nothing. “Looks like somebody got bored doing it,” is the old man’s grumbling response when his son insists on taking him to Mount Rushmore to see the presidents’ faces carved into the rocks. In one excruciating scene, Woody loses his dentures. Father and son scrabble around on the railroad tracks where they think he may have dropped them.

Payne shows us Woody’s face staring at the beautiful Midwestern landscapes they are driving through. We have no sense, though, that he is enraptured by the view. His face is blank, bereft of emotion. The trip has barely started when Woody gets drunk, gashes his head and has to be taken to hospital. His son therefore organises a detour to his home town, Hawthorne, where his relatives organise an impromptu family gathering in his honour.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay treads a delicate line between affection and caricature in its depiction of the Midwesterners. Woody’s relatives and old friends are venal and grotesque. When they begin to suspect he may really have won a fortune, they prey on him. There is one wonderful sequence in which Woody and his wife visit the local cemetery where many of their childhood friends are buried. Kate bad-mouths them all and claims that most of them propositioned her sexually. She even lifts her skirts to show her knickers to the gravestone of one of her deceased suitors. Whether or not she was attractive wasn’t the question. As we learn, “These boys grew up looking at the rear end of cows and pigs” and weren’t fussy about their partners.

Gradually, we begin to see Woody in a more sympathetic light. This is partly because of the details of his past (his experiences in the Korean war, his acts of generosity) that David uncovers as he spends time with the people who knew him long ago.

It helps, too, that Nebraska boasts such a memorable villain in the shape of Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Like Dern, Keach is an actor whose achievements are often overlooked. British audiences probably know him best for his role in TV’s Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer, Private Eye dramas – and from his short spell in Reading Jail. However, Keach was outstanding as the washed-up, alcoholic boxer in John Huston’s Fat City and is equally good here as the leering, creepy bully who pretends to welcome Woody to town but is only interested in his money.

Payne’s flair for comic observation is apparent throughout Nebraska. At one stage, we see Woody and all his male relatives watching American football. They’re all utterly still, utterly impassive. Their faces are as inexpressive as those of the Mount Rushmore statues Woody so dislikes. When they do speak, their conversation stretches little further than motor parts or back-handed compliments about Woody’s new-found wealth.

The harshness of the storytelling is undercut by the music, used in nostalgic and playful fashion throughout. Woody’s quest for his winnings initially seems utterly absurd. Then, we realise, it gives him a reason to live and his son an excuse to spend time with him. Nebraska may be a conventional story about an estranged child rediscovering his love for his ornery old father but there is no On Golden Pond-style mawkishness here.

The reason the film has such an emotional kick is precisely because its style is so pared down and austere.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine