*I am going to be very ambitious and try to complete 2 reviews by today. However, my review for 12 Years a Slave will come after I complete a school assignment*
I must admit to being a sucker for family films with colourful personalities, where you basically have members who are a) constantly swearing and acting vulgar but are in fact very loving and tender (Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine) b) the nonchalant one c) overly ambitious (usually some son/daughter who is too busy caring about his or her own career and wishes to have no forms of association with the family) and d) the neutral member, usually the main character who is usually trying to deal with the family’s shenanigans. The only exception is August: Osage County, where EVERYONE is screwed up, but I enjoyed that film anyway. I feel like I have seen such portrayals (you just have to re-designate the roles) way too many times, like in Little Miss Sunshine or Moonstruck, just applied in different context. Admittedly, such portrayals are clichés but I just can’t help but embrace them, and Nebraska is no different.
Nebraska (2013) tells the story of Woody Grant, an ageing man who has to deal with all of the people of his past after learning that he supposedly won a million dollars. In a way, the film is predictable as hell but I enjoyed every moment of it. The early build up was a bit slow and I can understand why some people find it boring, but the subtle charm in the movie just works so well for me that I didn’t really mind. I just can’t help but smile when I see standard portrayals of old men sitting in front of the TV with basically nothing to say to one another, while all the old women are gathered in the kitchen gossiping away. Sure, it is a cliché but I must add that I don’t think it’s that far off from reality. The whole quirky family description that I mentioned earlier totally fits here. You have Woody the (seemingly) nonchalant father, Kate the swearing matriarch, Ross the successful news anchor and David the neutral member who just wants to do his part in holding the family together.
Like I said, the storytelling isn’t perfect as the first part was a bit slow, but I kinda feel that that was the point, which is to depict life in that town as slow and boring. All these old people sitting together and their small talk, David in his boring job, watching Ross on TV etc…
Things change rapidly, however, when the news of Woody’s winning leaking out. I always love it when movies depict how fast news spread in small towns like this. I just find it very funny, maybe because it was exactly like that when I was living in Khatib. The atmosphere becomes slightly tense, with all these old “friends” and money-grubbing relatives suddenly putting on their fake smiles and talking about how they did the family a favour in the past. I’m not going to divulge details about my personal life but let’s just say I know that feeling. From then on, I really became interested in the film as the characters’ motives, intentions and past secrets all started revealing themselves. It really shows how cruel people can be when it comes to their own motives, and how family ties and relations can be destroyed if you do not handle them properly. The film really shows how “money is the root of all evil” in a very natural manner, and I found myself rooting for the family despite them not being them not being a particular likeable bunch of people themselves.
The ending is just wonderfully moving; it is full of sadness, but yet it is strangely uplifiting. You really see the portrait of a man who has pretty much wasted his life and all he wants in the end is just a truck and some money to make amends. Like I said, it’s all very standard and predictable but there is so much quiet charm and bittersweet moments in it that I just enjoyed the film despite it being quite slow. I have very few issues with the film overall, such as the characters being caricatures and the dialogue trying a bit too hard to be smart at times.
Bruce Dern gives a great performance as Woody Grant. I really love all the performances nominated for the best actor Oscar this year, they’re all really deserving of the win. Well, not so much for Christian Bale, whose slot I feel should have gone to Tom Hanks or Joaquin Phoenix but anyway…I just love how the actors added so much layers and energy to their roles despite the fact that their characters aren’t exactly the most complex (maybe only McConaughey). For the majority of the film, Dern plays a very quiet observer role, which is very different from his other nominated performance in Coming Home (1978). You can feel that his character is not slow in the head per se as everyone is assuming (he is in fact quite sharp and knows how to troll his son in one scene). He actually knows what is going on but he chooses to ignore them and live in his own world. He really shows how worn out and regret-filled Woody is without saying much, and how little he really needed just to be content. This quiet intensity is a true testament to the strength of his performance. His expression towards at the final scene while he was driving through the town is really marvellous. Well what do you expect, you know how crazy I go for subtle performances.
While Dern gives a quiet performance, June Squibb on the other hand gives a loud performance as his wife Kate Grant. I’m going to say something absolutely unpopular: while everyone is going Lawrence versus Nyong’o, Squibb’s performance is the one that really stuck with me in this weak supporting actress line-up. I just love swearing old ladies :p But more importantly, she managed to balance the tender moments very well. I was very impressed with the scene where she defended Woody from his family members (“Don’t you DARE think about asking that poor man for money”) and the scene where she kissed Woody and said “You big idiot” or something like that…Anyway, the tender moments were really moving and natural, and it really shows how she still loved her husband despite insulting him all of the time. Of course, her comical moments are dead on too, but I actually liked some of the subtle bitchy expressions she gave, like her “are you fucking kidding me?” expression when the waitress recommended tilapia. Another favourite scene of mine is when she tries to divert the attention of this elderly couple after her sons break into their house, it’s just damn funny (that whole scene was hilarious). Anyway, her character is a cliché and some of her lines come across as a bit try-hard but overall I felt that she gave the most genuine and natural performance.
The rest of the supporting players are fine, but I must really give a shout-out to Stacy Keach for his truly remarkable performance as Woody’s slimy “friend” Ed Pegram. The scene in the bathroom alone is so naturally menacing that I got the chills watching him threaten David. I’m biased, but I think I’d have given him a nomination…over Bradley Cooper. Still, no one has a chance of Jared Leto, who will be one of my favourite winners ever in that category. By the way, my admiration for American Hustle has drastically dropped over the past few days as I got to mull over it. Let’s just say that as of now, I only agree with the costume design and production design nominations.
Alexander Payne’s direction is really great here, he really constructed the slow, sleepy atmosphere of the town very well and still maintains it even in the tense dramatic moments. I also like the use of black-and-white because it brings out the mood of the film, along with the very effective score. The cinematography was beautiful as well, I was really taken by all those shots of the scenery despite them having no colour.
Overall, Nebraska is a charming film that may not be everyone, but I enjoyed it greatly. It’s predictable and formulaic but moving and sad at the same time. I might even rank it above Dallas Buyer’s Club actually. 4/5.