Director: Alexander Payne
Bruce Dern is faultless here. After years of alcohol abuse and discontentment, his wild eyes and complacent acceptance are overcome by dogged determination to attain this million dollars. This is a man who has never been happy, who’s been taken advantage of his entire life and never believed he could change the hand he’s been dealt. When asked about his past, love and contentment are the furthest things from his memory, but he has no regret; his attitude is wholly fatalistic. What happened, happened; there’s nothing he can do to change it. Now in his eighties, half-deaf, frail and with early stages of Alzheimers, this is his uncharacteristic last-ditch attempt to make something of himself and Dern portrays this role with subtlety and aplomb, showing us that old man that we all know whilst we discover his motivations through episodic encounters with his past. Woody has spent his whole life a door-mat, but despite his great years, his whole demeanour portrays the childish simplicity that comes with old age. While this role could have been a showy performance of great pain and regret, instead this is a complex and restrained performance.
Payne’s directorial thumbprint is one of reserved realism. His last three films, The Descendents, Sideways and About Schmidt, were character studies of reticent men that trundled through their lives and stories with a confident patience. Thematically, I’ve never been that big a fan of Payne’s films (with the exception of the sublime Election), but there’s no doubt his films are finely crafted and the work of a great auteur. Though I enjoyed Nebraska, its third act dragged somewhat and its run-time felt a bit laboured, but this doesn’t distract from the subtle humour and real heart at its centre. This is a film about a son trying to reconnect with his father, and as such, it would take a hard-hearted person not to relate to the story here. I suppose this is why so many people love Payne’s movies; not only are his characters human, they are humans that we all know.
For the lovers of pace, excitement and spectacle, Nebraska is not a film for you. However, this is a film about the elderly that will only get more poignant the older you get. Just as Amour struck chords last year with the older generation, or anyone who had elderly parents, so too will Nebraska resonate and mean more than just its story. While the state of Nebraska is almost a character in its own right in the film, this is a story that could happen anywhere, to anyone or to us, or people that we know. Its humanity and accessibility is this film’s strength, and though it may not feature in my favourite films of 2013, there’s no doubt that Nebraska is one of the finest films of the year.