Rehan Mudannayake reviews Oscar winner Alexander Payne’s return to cinema Nebraska, the story of an eccentric old man’s cross-country road trip to claim supposed lottery winnings.
Directed by Alexander Payne, 115 Minutes.
Alexander Payne is one of a handful of contemporary American auteurs who is constantly capable of constructing critically acclaimed pictures that also appeal to a mass audience. His last three were made for under $30m and grossed well over $100m, whilst garnering praise from critics and fans alike. Naturally, I expected his latest to be as popular as his previous efforts. I was wrong.
The usher confirmed it was the right room. So…why was there no one inside? “Well it is Nebraska…”. Convincing myself that cinemagoers were at the Berlinale instead, I sat down to watch the Palme D’Or nominated Nebraska. It blew me away.
When Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a mail scam informing him that he’s won a million dollars, he insists on travelling all the way from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up. Despite acknowledging the fraudulent nature of the leaflet, his son David (Will Forte) decides to humour his father by travelling with him via his hometown of Hawthorne. Yes, it turns into another one of those wacky Payne roadtrips…
The picture is bitingly satirical, particularly in its portrayal of Woody’s family and Hawthorne’s small town nature. Notable caricatures include Woody’s irritating adult nephews: piggish, potbellied troublemakers who sit in front of the television all day discussing cars. The characters of the drama provide a stark contrast to the intellectuals present in Payne’s earlier endeavours.
Payne pays homage to his home state by shooting the entire film in gorgeous black and white; in many ways, it is his anti-Manhattan. His Nebraska is not magnificent, diverse or indeed educated like Woody Allen’s New York but it has a certain je ne sais quoi to it. Despite its greedy, ignorant citizens we are subject to its warmhearted inhabitants, many of whom have some sort of prior connection to Woody. This intimate glimpse into his life is a reminder of how well liked he was as a young man.
It is interesting to note that Payne’s protagonists are often lovable losers who eventually redeem themselves – think Warren Schmidt, Miles Raymond, Matt King – and Woody is no exception. Each of these leading characters is teetering on the edge of self-destruction but undergoes a transformative experience. We come to realize that Woody’s intentions are respectable: as the picture progresses, his charitable qualities emerge, particularly his motive behind claiming the ‘million dollars’.
It’s a real shame Nebraska received a lukewarm response at the box office it is as brilliant, soulful and indeed AS powerful as Payne’s first five films, maybe more so. A must watch.