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On the road to Nebraska

Nebraska, a new film by Alexander Payne, has just been released in UK cinemas. For those acquainted with Payne’s body of work, which consists mostly of rather commercial productions, such as About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson or The Descendants with George Clooney, it might come as a bit of a surprise how subtle and low-key is his new cinematographic effort. Starring Bruce Dern and William Forte, Nebraska is an enthralling road movie about the old age, hopes and illusions, and the unique bond between a father and a son.

The outstanding artistic results of this unassuming project are in great part due to the excellent screenplay which, in contrary to his previous works, wasn’t written by Payne himself but by the talented debutant Bob Nelson whose career in film industry has so far been limited to a minor appearance in the Seattle sketch comedy show “Almost Live!” broadcast during the 1990s.

The script tells the story of the elderly Woody Grant from Billings in Montana. Having received a bogus notification of a million dollar prize, the pertinacious old man thinks he struck it rich and persuades his son Dave into taking him for a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his alleged winnings. Along the way through the heartland of America the two men meet family members and old friends who, in prospect of Woody’s fortune, reveal their true greedy selves. Well paced and dramatically balanced, Nelson’s writing sparks with sharp and witty dialogues voiced by the array of colourful characters who, in their complex human natures, are at once amusing and touching, and therefore profoundly convincing.

Nebraska was shot in black-and-white by Phedon Papamichael, Payne’s cinematographer on Sideways and The Descendants. In the great outdoors scenes the camera’s wide open eye stares prolongedly at the vast American landscape, gradually building the movie’s timeless, archetypical quality, whereas the narrow, claustrophobic perspective employed in the interior shots brilliantly aids the image of sleepy provincial towns and their inhabitants, so realistically depicted in Nelson’s script. This visual poetry has its audial equivalent in the beguiling soundtrack by Mark Orton, a member of the San Francisco chamber music group Tin Hat.His musical impressions beautifully complement the artful photography, greatly enhancing its contemplative spirit.

The director couldn’t have made a better decision choosing Bruce Dern for the role of Woody. The experienced, although not widely known actor brilliantly interprets emotional tribulations of the slightly demented husband and father whose only desire in the face of old age is to regain dignity and appreciation of his family and old friends by proving them his worth. Not less credible is Dern’s screen partner William Forte impersonating Dave – the compassionate younger son willing to cross several states of the country in order to chase his old man’s grand illusion. It wouldn’t be fair not to mention the third key figure of this picture, Dave’s mother Kate, played delightfully by June Squibb. It’s a real treat to watch her portrayal of a querulous old lady capable of picking a hole in everybody’s coat.

Carefully thought out and perfectly executed, Nebraska is a picture of extraordinary aesthetic appeal and expressive power, provoking uncomfortable reflection on the twilight of life, loneliness within the circle of family and “good-willing” friends, and the innate human need for acceptance and understanding. Congratulations to the film’s creators on not bending under the pressure of the distributor who insisted on hiring big stars instead of less known actors, as well as on filming in colour. Thanks to them being faithful to their original vision, we can now admire this unpretentious and truly universal piece of cinema which, I would like to hope, some day will find its place among the most cherished classics.

© Anna Bajor-Ciciliati, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anna Bajor-Ciciliati with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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