Review: Nebraska Is No County for Old Men

Bruce Dern will need some grooming before Oscar night.
Bruce Dern will need some grooming before Oscar night.

A contemporary of David O. Russell and David Fincher, Alexander Payne doesn’t get nearly as much respect even though he is arguably a stronger filmmaker (have you seen American Hustle? It’s a train wreck disguised as a prestige picture.) Payne’s favorite subject -the ignominy of aging- has translated into some fantastic titles, including Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents.

 Nebraska is the least gimmicky of the bunch and, because of its straightforwardness, the best one. Not only the film chronicles an old man last harebrained effort to attain riches, but also presents a textured portrait of America’s economic depression, today.

 Bruce Dern caps five decades of work with an understated yet moving performance as Woody Grant, an elderly man with signs of dementia. Woody’s life has been unremarkable, trapped in a midsize town, with a wife he can barely tolerate and adult children with little to no interest in maintaining a relationship with him.

 As reason begins to slip away, Woody buys into an advertising gimmick and believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes prize.  So it begins a road trip from Billings to Lincoln to claim the reward, a journey that takes Woody back to his hometown and may restore his bond with son Davy (Will Forte, SNL), reluctantly driving him across Nebraska, headed for disappointment.

 As compelling as the central narrative is, the characters –main and supporting- make the movie. Woody’s stoicism and Davy’s kindness contrast with all the rest, a bunch of malcontents proudly in the wrong. Nebraska may give the impression is mocking mid-westerners, but by their own testimony the portrait is frightfully accurate (Payne is a local). The director finds the dignity of simple people, but also criticizes their narrow-mindedness. There is plenty of humor to be found, with an undercurrent of melancholy.

 Part of the brilliancy of Nebraska resides in the cinematography. The black and white approach underlines the poverty that ravages Middle America. Once up-and-coming, the Midwest looks neglected, about to be blown by the wind. Few films have captured this dark period in American history more accurately, or without rubbing it in audiences’ faces. Four lonesome dogs.

Nebraska is now playing at Rainbow Cinemas Studio 7.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.

8 thoughts on “Review: Nebraska Is No County for Old Men”

  1. Jorge, you’re one of my favourite film critics, so I went and saw this tonight on your advice. Although I enjoyed Sideways, I didn’t care for The Descendents at all, so in my thinking, Payne is hit or miss. I enjoyed the first section of the film: sterile, brooding, serious, sad, etc. But when they got going on their little road trip, I felt it unravelled. The chracters were all either boards (purposeful) or so over the top they weren’t beliveable (Woody’s wife lifting up her skirt in the cemetery was when the film “jumped the shark”) for me. The crux of the problem, in my opinion, was that I didn’t buy Kate’s defense of Woody owning their family money (he worked for free). If Woody was such a great guy, why the hell did he treat his kids like shit? Woody finally has a genuine emotional moment right at the end where you think he’s going to keel over and finally quit it but instead he spills his guts “I just wanted something to leave you boys.” To me, it felt like he made that up on the spot. I didn’t believe anything Woody said. I was on the side of the greedy family and the smiling old friend with the air compressor: I thought Woody was a piece of shit. Ditto with Forte’s character punching old smiley in the face at the end. Felt completely out of character.

    The cinematography, of course, saves it: a lot of those shots look like they could’ve been taken right here in Saskatchewan. The direction is at least decent: he lets scenes play out and characters flesh themselves out, I just don’t think I cared for the story.

  2. Oddly, this film didn’t hit my radar until I read your review, Jorge, along with the resulting comments from blog readers. Now, I’m really looking forward to seeing it — just hope I can get there before they pull it from the big screen. And BTW, thanks, Jorge, for regularly profiling so many of the smaller, less commercially successful movies along with the blockbusters in your reviews.

  3. Thanks Moon Daddy and Rebecca. I agree that the June Squibb character is problematic, but overall I buy Woody’s character arc. I felt this was a guy who left circumstances to shape his life until this point. My perception was that more than a bad father, he was an absent father, not something he ever wanted to be.

    Fun fact: One of the cousins is played by Home Alone’s Buzz.

  4. Finally had a chance to see Nebraska this weekend — and enjoyed it a lot. Agree the cinematography was fantastic. Really, really enjoyed the black and white approach — can’t imagine it having been done in full colour. As for the characters — I felt myself exclaiming several times throughout the film, “Oh, god, I *know* those people!” And, sadly, in some cases, “Oh god, I *am* those people!” Not sure I enjoyed Wil Forte’s acting — seemed like he was doing just that — acting. But, his character was well-written. The only character who didn’t quite seem believable was June, even though she reminded me at times of a couple of my crazy aunts, the character seemed a little too over the top through most of the film. Not sure he deserves to win it, but Bruce Dern certainly deserves the Oscar nomination. On a related note — loved the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis — can’t wait to see it. And, dying to get the soundtrack. Have you already reviewed the film Jorge?

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