By Ryan Maddux and Andy Stuckey
---- — The Oscar contenders just keep coming, as this week we watched Alexander Payne’s latest, Nebraska (R).
Bruce Dern stars as an elderly man who thinks he has won a million dollars from a mass-mail marketer, and plans on traveling from Montana to Nebraska to collect his winnings. Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, and June Squibb costar.
Ryan: Before Nebraska I saw for the umpteenth time a trailer for August: Osage County. Now to be fair, I haven’t seen that movie. But from what I’ve gathered from seeing the trailer a half-dozen times is that it’s loud and it’s dramatic. I only bring this up because Nebraska is the anti-August: Osage County.
Nebraska deals with its fair share of family drama but it is presented in a much more low-key (I would also argue more authentic) manner. Alexander Payne has directed some great films and Nebraska is another feather in his cap.
Andy: Nebraska fits quite well in the pantheon of Alexander Payne’s films. Like many of his movies, it seems as if it is a slow-moving drama that features lots of people getting in and out of cars. But about half-way through, you realize that you have become hooked on these characters. The acting is strong across the board, and the themes emerge slowly and realistically, the way they do in real life. This makes Nebraska a surprisingly subtle film, and Bruce Dern’s performance is at the heart of that. Movies and performances like this do not often get the kind of awards-hype that Nebraska is enjoying, and that is a testament not only to the quality of the performances, but to Payne’s track record as a director.
Ryan: Shot in a grayish black and white palette, Nebraska’s film aesthetic greatly captures the intricate family dynamic of its lead family. It’s not a complicated story (with it’s MacGuffin of the million-dollar sweepstakes “winning” ticket) but it plays on many themes of mortality and legacy with regard to a father-son relationship. Performed against the backdrop of rural Midwestern America, this is Payne’s love letter — warts and all – to his home. He does a tremendous job of creating an environment that captures many of the subtler nuances (both good and bad) of Midwestern life.
Andy: This movie seems particularly resonant for folks who have lived in a small Midwestern town. When the characters arrive in Nebraska town where most of the movie takes place, the setting, characters, and attitudes are all reminiscent of different aspects of Decatur County. It is not often that rural small towns get such realistic treatment in film, and it is an impressive choice after Payne’s last film set in Hawaii. The characters and the setting merge flawlessly, with Dern, Squibb, and Forte all creating characters that do not seem like characters at all. Dern and Squibb both nabbed deserved Oscar nods, and it is worth noting that Forte’s performance is right at the same level.
Ryan: I must admit that when veteran Hollywood stars get an Oscar nomination I sometimes take it a skeptical view of the nomination. There are many instances where these nominations are just a tip-of-the-cap to an actor and his career. That’s not the case here with Bruce Dern. His Oscar nomination is much deserved as he gives a grizzled yet empathetic performance as a man who knows the end is near. His chemistry with Will Forte, who also gives a noteworthy performance, is the nucleus that anchors the film.
Nebraska is a charmingly realistic film with no major flaws and great performances. Final grade: A-.