Sunday, October 13, 2013

NY Film Festival: Nebraska

Nebraska is Alexander Payne's new film: a rumination on old age, the heartbrake of unfulfilled dreams, the eternal struggle between fathers and sons, and the death of America's heartland during the current economic crisis. Shot on black-and-white film by Phedon Papamichael, the texture of the images are reminiscent of the great photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange of the Great Depression, and Gregg Toland's cinematography on John Ford's great film The Grapes of Wrath.

The story centers on the complex relationship between a father and son. Woody, (Bruce Dern) is an alcoholic octogenarian, who is rapidly losing touch with reality, and who wants to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the million dollars that he thinks he's won in a bogus sweepstakes. His son, David (Will Forte), a stereo and TV salesman who has just split up with his live-in girlfriend, agrees to drive him there, even though he knows fully well that there will be no money waiting for him at the end of their journey. Rounding out the other main characters in this road film are Woody's shrewish wife Kate (June Squibb) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody's more successful older son who is an up-and-coming TV anchorman. When the journey takes us to Woody and Kate's rural town where they grew up, we also meet Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody's ex-business partner who does not wait long before he threatens Woody and the family claiming that the old man owes him ten grand.

Despite the serious issues of unemployment, economic failure, and old age that the film raises, Bob Nelson's screenplay is rich and plentiful with dark comedic scenes that verge on the absurd, coupled with brilliant dialogue that elevates the script to the level of art. Woody and his son hopelessly looking for dad's teeth on the railroad tracks is pure Samuel Beckett, while their dialogue during this scene, in which both take their turn at dismissing that the teeth they found are not the right teeth, is pure Golden-Age Hollywood. 

Alexander Payne has once again cast his film perfectly. Bruce Dern is wonderfully memorable as Woody, a grizzled, whispy-haired lumbering, but fragile man; his face a map showing a lifetime of sacrifice and missed opportunities. June Squibb, an actress who has made a career playing mothers and aunts, and who played Helen Schmidt in Payne's 2002 About Schmidt, is a force of shrewish nature as Woody's loud but lovable wife: an old lady who clearly has happily misplaced her super-ego somewhere far, and who wants to ship Woody to a nursing home. Sons Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk start out in Cain and Abel mode until circumstances turn them into bumbling conspirators in a hilarious sequence regarding an old air compressor.

One of the best films of the year, Nebraska is destined for loads of prizes and awards, and it is not to be missed.

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