Some movies simply need time to have a full impact. Alexander Payne’sNebraska was the first movie I saw at the London Film Festival, which is perhaps the worst possible timing. I really enjoyed the film, laughed all the way through and was touched by it. However, only one hour after the lights went up after it finished, I was sitting down for the next film, the second of four of the day. 10 days and 30+ movies later, when it came to pick my top 10 films of the festival, Nebraska wasn’t one of them. While I had not forgotten about it, I judged it to be light and less memorable than other films.
About a month later, when I was picking my favourite films of 2013, Nebraskamade the initial long list. Clearly there was something about it that stayed on my mind. Then Nebraska was finally released in UK theatres, and with it came the usual articles, interviews and reviews. After reading Matt Micucci’s excellentreview of the film, I finally did what I had neglected to do after seeing it: I thought about it. Well over two months had passed since I had seen the film, and yet more and more details came back to me. Another month later, and I still can’t stop thinking about it, which is why I have decided to write about it. Sometimes, it just takes a little time to fully appreciate a film.
Woody is an old, retired mechanic on the brink of senility. The film’s opening shot shows him walking on foot next to the highway and being stopped by the police. He has received a letter promising him a million dollars if he shows up in Nebraska, and is determined to walk the 700 miles from his home in Montana to claim his prize. Despite everyone repeatedly assuring him that the million dollars does not exist and that the letter is a marketing scam, Woody refuses to (or is unable to) see sense. Finally his son David takes pity on him and agrees to drive him to Nebraska. Together they embark on a journey which has no pot of gold at its end. On the way, they stop in Woody’s home town, where the supposed millionaire quickly becomes a local celebrity.
First of all, the film looks absolutely beautiful. Payne, who was born in Nebraska, has an eye for rural America like few other directors. His decision forNebraska to be in black and white was an inspired one and the visuals give the film simultaneously a stylised looked and a certain sense of realism. The cast is also outstanding. Stacy Keach and June Squibb (as Woody’s ceaselessly bickering wife) shine in great, scene-stealing roles, but at the heart of the film are Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Dern’s performance has been rightly receiving a lot of attention, winning the best actor award at Cannes, but Forte (primarily known as a comedian on SNL) is the biggest surprise. He takes a very difficult role of the quiet, anxiety-ridden son and makes it his own; first-class under-acting.
Payne not only has an eye for the look of rural America, but he also has an ear for the people of rural America, their character and their language. Even though he did not write the script for Nebraska himself, it feels very much like an Alexander Payne film (one might call it Payne-ful), balancing drama and a particularly warm and human sense of humour, which has distinguished his films in the past. Woody’s home town and his family are crowded with quirky, unique characters and the small town politics play out perfectly.
The most interesting thing about Nebraska is however the father-son relationship at the centre of it all. Woody has not been the best father to David, prone to have a drink or two; but there is clearly a lot of love, even if he struggles to express it. David is unsure how to feel about his dad, he desperately wants to love him, but doesn’t know how or why. The journey to Nebraska is also a journey for David into the unknown realms of his father’s past. Meeting people from his father’s youth helps him understand the old stubborn man he is travelling with, and slowly they start to reconnect. It is this troubled, affecting relationship that remained with me all this time and which makes Nebraska my favourite Alexander Payne film.