Nebraska (2013)

Director:  Alexander Payne
Cast:  Bruce DernWill ForteJune Squibb
Plot:  An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Genre:  Drama / Comedy
Awards:  Won Best Actor and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Runtime:  115min
Rating:  NC16 for some language.

“Have a drink with your old man.  Be somebody!”

I would double-check the envelope, as Martin Scorsese cheekily exclaimed when he won his first Oscar for Best Director for The Departed (2006), that is if I ever receive a letter that announces that I've won a million dollars. 

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an old man with seemingly nothing to live for.  He lives with his naggy wife played by June Squibb.  So when he finds out that he has won a million bucks, he is determined to get it, even if it means walking hundreds of miles to Lincoln to redeem his prize money.  It is all a scam though.  His frustrated son David relents and drives him there if only for the opportunity to spend (more) time with his father. 

Director Alexander Payne seems incapable of making a bad film, after critical hits such as Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011).  Nebraska quite simply is his most elegant and exquisite effort to date.

Shot on location in black-and-white cinematography that brings out the timeless charm of the American Midwest, Nebraska is a road movie that is aware of its beautiful surroundings.  The picturesque scenery, and the old town folks (and a large number of grazing cows?) that populate the scenery are fascinating to behold.  I have not been to the States before, but that's where I want to go.  Not busy New York, but lazy Nebraska. 

Payne elicits memorable performances from Dern and Squibb.  Their interactions with each other and with others are funny in a straight-faced way.  In one scene, a handful of old folks watch the television.  We don't see what they are viewing, but we hear an excited sports commentator yakking away, in contrast to the seemingly emotionless expressions of the old people.  I feel these scenes necessarily elevate the mood of the picture, marked by a sense of quiet absurdity.

What makes Nebraska so charming apart from the performances and cinematography is Mark Orton's original score.  It is perfect in its simplicity, endlessly captivating, and I believe, key to Payne's intention to capture a timeless past, even when the film is set in the present.  Orton’s understated work here ought to have been nominated for an Oscar. 

Speaking of which, Nebraska probably won't win an Oscar because 2013 has been very competitive.  If it does, bet on Bruce Dern upsetting Matthew, Leo and Chiwetel. 

Verdict:  The exceptional black-and-white cinematography and likable performances by Bruce Dern and June Squibb give this understated ode to the laidback American Midwest a timeless charm.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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