REVIEW: Nebraska

25 01 2014

Cannes Film Festival – Official Competition

It’s tempting to analyze frequent writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach as if both their contributions to a film are co-dependent upon each other. Especially for someone like me, who values the power of the written word, it’s easy to think that a good script might just direct itself.

Nebraska,” a film directed but not written by Alexander Payne, offered a unique chance to observe his helming prowess independent of his writing. As it turns out, maybe I’m a bigger fan of Payne’s writing than I am of his directing. Payne’s critical stance towards his native Midwest almost seems to be working against the gentle tenderness of Bob Nelson’s script.

Payne’s previous scripts have all had a certain kind of bite to them. Perhaps that comes with the territory, though, as they mostly explore people going through crises – midlife, old age, the death of a spouse. “Nebraska” is remarkably simple, a tale of a grown son indulging his demented father in a road trip to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize.

For such a quaint tale, it’s refreshing to see a cast so free of pre-existing iconography assembled for “Nebraska.”  Perennial character actor Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a patriarch of no particular distinction other than his unrecognized charity.  He’s calculatedly remote, both out of learned habit and elderly retreat.  Woody is often absent, but Dern is always present, making his character most alive in those dead moments.  It’s fascinating to watch the way he slowly reveals what Woody has mostly kept silent for years to a son with whom he’s not particularly close.

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