Nebraska

I had never heard of this movie until June Squibb was nominated for best supporting Oscar. Further, being shot in black and white led me to believe this was a low-budget indy film.  Surprising really, as Alexander Payne has directed big-ticket movies such as SidewaysThe Descendantsand About Schmidt.Payne was in fact born in Omaha, Nebraska – where he has set a number of his movies – which is perhaps why this is a painstaking portrait of a failing state. I don’t know how I missed it on original release – perhaps I was in hospital at the time.

Nebraska is a road-trip movie with a difference. Meek and mild Dave (Will Forte) is a hi-fi salesman in Montana, who is devoted to his aged parents: strong-willed and feisty Kate (June Squibb) who, we learn as the movie progresses, has had a lot to bear from her alcoholic, crotchety and somewhat senile husband Woody (Bruce Dern). 

Woody has received a notification that he has won $1million dollars from a magazine marketing company. No matter how many times he is read the small print, which says you have to have subscriptions to various magazines, he is determined he has won, and sets off daily to walk to Lincoln to collect his winnings, only to be retuned home by exasperated police. Kate is in despair: there is no reasoning with Woody. All he wants is a truck and compressor.

Dave, feeling sorry for his Dad, despite having been sorely neglected as a child, decides to do this one last thing for him: take him to Lincoln, if only to prove to him that he has not won. So off they set; but Woody is a crafty old devil, sneaking out to get wasted and ending up in hospital, resulting in an un-planned stay-over with his brother Ray in the small town where he grew up and met Kate.

Here we find depressing portraits of what it means to live in much of the US: where poverty and unemployment have taken a grip; where grown men sit at home all day, obese and stupid from idleness, watching sitcoms and talkshows, day in, day out, while the women somehow strive to keep their end up. They don’t come more revolting Dave’s cousins, or Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) who, like the rest of the town on hearing of Woody’s new found wealth – Woody, naturally, can’t resist showing off his good fortune after a few beers – wants a big slice of the action.  As do the family. Venality rules OK.

There are some funny moments too: when Dave and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk, better-known as slimy Saul from Breaking Bad) break into a farm to steal what they think is Woody’s old compressor; but mostly Payne paints heartbreaking pastiches of human nature at its worst and, every now and again, at its best. 

June Squibb is magnificent as Kate, long-suffering as a wife but loyal when it matters; Bruce Dern, a teetotal fitness freak in life, portrays a bent and boozed man only just in touch with reality to gut-wrenching perfection.Nebraskamight appear to be a little film, with its black and white camouflage and its relatively unknown cast. In fact, it deals with some of the big themes in life: love – both romantic and familial; loyalty; the state of the world and of human nature. If you missed it at the cinema, be sure to get it on DVD.

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