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57th BFI London Film Festival review: Nebraska

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Film Review Nebraska

Nebraska is part road-movie, part-family chronicle with skeletons bursting out of cupboards left, right and centre. Optioned beforeSideways by director Alexander Payne, he chose to work on his wine tasting road-trip comedy before this.

He made a wise choice, cementing his status as a brilliantly poignant comedy film-maker, but it would be a shame if those who enjoyed Sideways avoided Nebraska because it sounded like more of the same.

This film is wonderfully typical of Payne – with all of the deft touches that lead audiences to develop strong familial feelings for the cast on screen… even when they’re all so indelibly flawed. The conceit is simple – an old man named Woody (Bruce Dern) misreads and misunderstands a newspaper circular that says he has won a  Million dollars. He’s an old coot with possible dementia and a definite alcohol problem who won’t let it lie and decides to walk from where he lives in Montana to Nebraska to visit the advertising company that owes him his riches. His loving, if nagging wife and two sons – sensitive stereo salesman Davey and local newsreader Ross – realises that Woody will not give up until he has crossed state lines and demanded his fortune. So Davey and Woody drive through miles of countryside via the Nebraskan town where Woody was born, inadvertently raking up all sorts of hidden memories.

Nebraska would work equally as a colour picture, but draining the shade  from the screen gives it an inclusive, every-man feel. It doesn’t matter where it is set – it’s a family melodrama – and we can all relate. Everyone has strained relationships with their parents or wider extended family, men sit and drink beer and watch football, women sigh and bake and excuse their kin from all sin. Nebraska has the flavour of a documentary on the state on the role of bar culture, warfare and hard labour on rural family life, but Payne is creating a fiction here, so the film is relaxing and picturesque to watch. Plus it is extremely funny – from a slow pan of  the screen, the roll of eyes and the clever battles of words making it chuckle-worthy with familiar understanding.

Nebraska has a similar story arc to many road-movies, but it is the characters that are so well- drawn and well-acted. It’s quite scary to see Bruce Dern – a man so vital in Silent Running, The Great Gatsby and many other films – playing withered and confused, but then he is 77 and still a master of his craft. June Squibb is equally amazing as his wife Kate, almost stealing every scene. Comedy actor Will Forte is very good as Woody’s straight-man – a decent, sweet but dull man who just wants to get closer to his father. Every scene is underplayed with great sensitivity, and a real sense of the slowness of rural Americana is established.

At nearly two hours, Payne is allowed to stretch out the action.  Thus the most simplistic scenes become the most gratifying – there’s a glorious image of all of Woody’s brothers and their sons sitting in the same quiet thoughtful way watching a football game. No one shouts, they all peaceably adopt the same position and watch the screen – Payne easily captures the essence of these men in a matter of seconds.

Finally, the film’s score is winning, I was humming the theme for quite some time afterwards. Nebraskashows us that spectacle does not need to be packaged in a glorious technicolour-meets-IMAX box, this sweet and knowing film was a pleasure to watch.

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