Movie review – Nebraska: The unexpected road back home

2014-03-16 14:00

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When it comes to family, this one’s got more in common with The Addams Family than the Brady Bunch. But that’s what makes it such fun, writes Gayle Edmunds

Film: Nebraska (Ster-Kinekor)

Director: Alexander Payne

Featuring: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte and Stacy Keach

An old man strikes a lonely figure staggering unevenly up the side of a highway. His grey hair flies away in the chill wind but there’s a sense of dogged purpose in his slow steps.

So begins Alexander Payne’s latest road trip movie, Nebraska.

Payne, the man who made wine-tasting a rite of passage for middle-aged men in Sideways, makes a trip through America’s economically decimated Midwest into a fable about the true value (comic or otherwise) of family.

Payne’s greatest triumph is tempering the bleakness of this story’s surroundings by filming it in black and white.

That and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s biting wit take what could have been a humdrum genre film into the realm of the unexpected. The technique also gives the story a sense of timelessness and a feeling that it is a story that could easily be about you.

Bruce Dern, who was nominated for every best actor award this season, is Woody, a cantankerous, mostly drunk old man who gets a letter in the post saying he’s won $1?million.

It is one of those marketing gimmicks, but Woody doesn’t care and commits to walking (if necessary) the 1?650km across the county to claim his money. But this attempt is thwarted by the police, who call his family to come and get him.

His wife Kate (June Squibb, who was also nominated for awards) and son David (Will Forte, ditto on the awards circuit) tell Woody he’s being silly and he’s far too old to be so silly.

Woody doesn’t care and sets off again. David eventually decides there will be no peace until Woody has done the trip, so he decides to do it with his father.

Kate shakes her head and delivers the best one-liner of them all: “I didn’t even know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought of that earlier and worked for it.”

For every person who has aging parents, for every parent who wonders what happened to the middle bit of their lives, for everyone who didn’t manage to live the life they strove for – this film is for you.

Dern says of Payne: “He wants to examine what human beings do and why they do it. He is fascinated by human behaviour and that comes out in the way he directs.”

It is also why no matter how foreign the terrain (Hawaii in The Descendants, the Napa Valley in Sideways or frozen-solid Nebraska), Payne’s characters and stories feel familiar.

As Woody and David make their way across the country, their monosyllabic relationship is put to the test. When they approach Woody’s home town of Hawthorne, the pair decide to stay over with the family and a reunion of sorts is cobbled together.

Kate decides to catch the bus and join in and so does David’s more successful brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk, best known for his role as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad).

The result is more reminiscent of The Addams Family than the Brady Bunch, but much more macabre.

When word gets out to the family and the town’s residents that Woody is a millionaire, it brings old secrets and rivalries out into the open and David finds out a lot more than most children ever do about his parents’ lives as young adults.

Stacy Keach makes an appearance as Harry, Woody’s long-lost business partner who once borrowed Woody’s compressor and never returned it (this becomes important later).

The idea of the son whose father is distant and unloving is hardly a new one but somehow Payne’s exploration of this relationship is fresh.

Kate is the best of the characters, a mother figure who is just about everything that society dictates she shouldn’t be – a little vulgar and outspoken but at the same time a woman who has taken her mildly disappointing life and made it into the one she wanted all along.

The most enticing element of Nebraska is the idea of excavating the details of the lives of those you are closest to and finding that there are myriad secrets and motivations to be found under the surface.

The other draw card is that if you think your family is rather awful, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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