Postby CAP » Sun Feb 23, 2014 4:00 am

Good but not great. Alexander Payne returns to the senior’s road movie and familiar territory, out on the prairies, this time directing someone else’s script (Bob Nelson’s, to be precise). There are good things here, but the feel-good ending spoiled the carefully nurtured tragic tone and I can only give it seven. :cry:

What I liked about the movie is the superb black and white digital photography (DP: Phedon Papamichael) and the way it somehow makes present day fashions stand out, so that while the sweep of highways and fallow fields in autumn carry a sort of timeless, mythic look; a driveway with a late model Toyota, Kia and Ford Pickup jolts us, sets us looking at things more curiously. The same with current billboards, some clothing, massive farming machinery, all are somehow made vivid for being reduced to black and white for a time, placed within a leisurely story and desolate rural panoramas. The other thing that struck me is the way the characters’ dilemmas echo or are amplified by the settings. The movie is titled Nebraska, not just because the story traverses much of that state, but because the themes of decrepitude, decay and neglect are also the story of long term decline in the prairie farming sector. The forlorn odyssey undertaken by the ancient Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) surveys an exhausted landscape, a way of life no longer viable, attractive or necessary. The reasons are complex but the results are whole towns reduced to just their dwindling senior citizens, crumbling infrastructure, grim impoverishment. It’s a pattern shared in many parts of the world. Nebraska is dying and for the movie dying is Nebraska.

The story follows a grizzled Woody Grant, perhaps in his 80s, a citizen of Billings, Montana bent on claiming what he mistakenly believes is a million dollars prize money, if he can present a coupon to an office in Lincoln, Nebraska, some eight hundred miles away. Rather than confirm the arrangement by phone or email and short of cash and co-operation from his wife, Woody stubbornly decides to walk the distance, only to be detained by police on the outskirts of Billings and eventually returned to his modest home, in the care of the younger of his two sons, David. Woody will not see reason, is possibly senescent but to humour him, David agrees to drive him to Lincoln. David’s own situation is hardly reassuring; perhaps mid-30s, a stereo salesman in a recession, a crummy apartment and an estranged girlfriend accusing him of lack of commitment. Billings is not exactly El Dorado either. But David can spare a couple of days off work and they start out for Nebraska, Woody’s home state. It is to be one last look at his roots, if nothing else. This goes for both of them.

There are stop-overs and accidents. Woody is revealed to be a virtual alcoholic and a hastily arranged family reunion in his (fictive) hometown of Hawthorne, in Madison County only confirms a scattered family with little left to say to one another. Actually this cluster of laconic farmers probably wouldn’t have had much to say to one another at the best of times. Woody is joined by his wife Kate (June Squibb – last seen briefly in Payne’s About Schmidt and a performance the equal of Dern’s) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) an anchorman on a Billings TV station. Some immediate family unity is established, if only to counter indifference among the extended family. That may be the only kind left them. Actually, it’s probably quite typical – we find common ground easiest when sharing hostility (may in fact be the whole point of an extended family). There are revelations for the sons, as Kate’s visit to the local cemetery rattles various family skeletons and as news of Woody’s supposed good fortune spreads and old acquaintances look for favours. There are touching moments, where the elderly owner of the local newspaper, Peggy Nagy (a winsome Angela Mc Ewan) reveals Woody’s harrowing experience in the Korean War, her discreet crush on him at that time, tempered only by her refusal to let him “round the bases”. There is some comedy here with their buffoonish cousins Cole (Devin Ratray) and Bart (Tim Driscoll) but the grim relish of Kate’s backgrounds to the deceased and the sheer desolation to the fading little town, with its deserted main street, sullen silence and childlessness, its karaoke nights for OAPs (if only as an interlude to Bingo) in the local diner, all gently point us toward an inevitable, imminent and permanent departure, surely a merciful release.

Eventually the two reach Lincoln and duly are notified that Woody has not won a million dollars – was only ever eligible should his registration number be drawn in a lottery. Understandably, Woody takes it badly and it is only then that he is drawn into explaining why he has persisted with the quest so desperately. He was determined to have something to leave to his family when he dies, implicitly felt that was all he could leave them. This is unquestionably the climax of the story. For all of Woody’s supposed indulgence and prickly reticence, what matters most is what he can pass on to his family and this can only be on material terms. It ought to be a moment of far greater realisation for David, but his response remains essentially a kindness, ironically echoes the sentiment. Woody’s only real ambitions are for a new pickup truck and a compressor, should he need to use air-powered tools – to still feel like a tradesman, in other words. These things David can promptly furnish by trading in his own car, by allowing Woody to drive the pickup down the main street of Hawthorne. But that sells Woody’s aspirations sadly short. What a son can give to a father is not really the point. How much David has learned from his father’s example, what exactly he has passed on to him, we cannot know without Woody’s death. And this the film tragically, cannot accommodate.
Last edited by CAP on Tue Feb 25, 2014 1:51 am, edited 6 times in total.
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