Nebraska: Best picture that will not get the Oscar

> Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” was in competition at Cannes Film Festival where Bruce Dern won the award for Best Actor. The film is nominated for six Oscars. The film released in Indian on February 28.
By Aniruddha Basu • Published on March 2, 2014
Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" is shot in Black and White.  Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in the picture

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”. Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in the picture

Come Oscar season and for a change there are indeed a handful of standout movies that are rightfully vying for the coveted Best Picture gold statuette. Gravity is a thrill ride in the best tradition of science fiction movies, American Hustle is an entertaining con-romp based on a true story; Wolf of Wall Street, while not Scorsese’s best,  is a dynamic tale of greed and hedonism, Her, an intriguing and ironic love story and 12 Years a Slave is a compelling and poetic study of a black man’s harrowing experience as a slave.

However the one movie that beats them all as a pure cinematic experience is Nebraska, a stark, minimalistic, beautifully photographed look at fading small town America. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) with an eye for detail and a knack for finding humor in the unlikeliest of situations, Nebraska is a tragicomic tale of old age and family bonding. It is also a cheekily nostalgic movie that views the values and traditions of an earlier era through paradoxical lenses.

This is one of the best films of the year and thanks to the Oscar buzz has been given a limited release across India. However the film is likely to appeal to only a niche segment of moviegoers, and I will give the film two weeks at the most in theatres. Catch Nebraska before it disappears.

Its simplicity, and the absence of an operatic scale may mean that it will miss out on the big  prize, but it more than makes up for lack of scale by excellent storytelling, solid characterization, amazing performances by a cast of largely unknowns and stunning black and white cinematography (courtesy Phedon Papamichael) which can rival the best looking films of Bergman or Tarkovsky. Indeed the black and white photography is not just to enhance the beauty of its visuals. It is also to create an old world feel, to invoke the  Hollywood cinema of the 1940s and 50s where small town America was shown as simple and inherently “good”. It is this tradition that Alexander Payne wants to contrast and undercut. Old, in Payne’s book, is not always gold.

Set in contemporary America that is battling a prolonged economic slump, Nebraska describes the efforts of a senile, alcoholic 80-year-old Woody Grant who decides to travel a thousand miles (on foot) to collect what he believes is a sweepstakes win of a million dollars, after receiving a mail from a company based in Lincoln, Nebraska, that states he may have won a million dollars.

Woody Grant is played with the right mix of eccentricity and complexity by actor Bruce Dern, who really brings the character alive on screen. For the most part, the old man is in his own world, gazing emptily at the distant horizons, but he also has moments of striking lucidity, like that scene where he visits his childhood home in Hawthorne. It is also clear that though he has been a negligent husband and father, he is no villain. In fact he seems to have been more sinned against than sinning, and had probably taken to drinking in a big way after friends and relatives took advantage of his inherent goodness.

His two sons and his foulmouthed, long suffering, but caring wife Katy (brilliantly played by June Squibb) plead with him to see reason, but to no avail. The old man is as stubborn as a mule, or perhaps he is just clinging on to an unreasonable hope as the only silver lining in his life.

Finally, Woody’s younger son David takes it upon himself to drive his dad to Nebraska . Not because he believes even for a moment that the money may be forthcoming, but because he sees this as an opportunity to finally connect with his father, who largely ignored his two sons while they were growing up.

This road trip forms the crux of Nebraska and takes them to a fictional town called Hawthorne where much of Grant’s extended family stays. Hawthorne is a marvelous creation. With a population of maybe a 1,000 people, most of them old, Hawthorne is as close as it gets to a ghost town. It gives the impression that it may have seen better days some four or five decades back, before Japanese automakers took over the world. It would have prospered at a time when General Motors and Ford were still growing strong thus providing employment to scores of small hamlets such as Hawthorne which acted as their parts suppliers.

But now most of the younger generation have deserted the town in search of better prospects elsewhere. The ones who have stayed back like Woody Grant’s two overgrown nephews are up to no good. One of them has even served jail time for sexual assault. There are hardly any vehicles seen on the streets and the only place for recreation is a tavern with a blinking light, populated by ageing no-gooders, notably an old scheming buddy of Woody Grant’s who doesn’t hesitate to get creepy when he learns that his old partner may soon be a millionaire.

As news spreads that Woody Grant is on his way to becoming a millionaire, the Hawthorne residents, including his extended family with whom he broke contact decades ago, circle around him like a pack of smiling predators. Their mix of subtle hints and open threats calls into question whatever age old values of solidarity and community cooperation they seemed to represent. At the same time, their unquestioning belief that a lifelong underachiever like Woody Grant can suddenly become a millionaire demonstrates their naiveté. These are simpletons with greedy and dubious motives.

Ultimately, it is the younger generation, represented by the genteel David and his elder brother Ross who seems more humane and better adjusted to the world around them. It is almost a marvel that they did not inherit the callousness and apathy that their father has sunk into. It could be the result of their mother’s influence whose foul mouthed demeanor masks a practical attitude and protective concern for  her family.

But the open mindedness of the sons seems to be more the outcome of accepting the changing times (Ross is married to a Korean and drives a Jap sedan) rather than clinging on to a dying and decaying past, represented by that mythical hamlet of Hawthorne.

This is one of the best films of the year and thanks to the Oscar buzz has been given a limited release across India. However the film is likely to appeal to only a niche segment of moviegoers, and I will give the film two weeks at the most in theatres. Catch Nebraska before it disappears.

Director: Alexander Payne Writer: Bob Nelson Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

Nebraska released in India on February 28.

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3 Responses to “Nebraska: Best picture that will not get the Oscar”

  1. Scotmom says:

    I never see a movie twice. Just have never done it. This movie broke my tradition. It was a beautiful commentary on life in the midwest (I grew up in Indiana and dad grew up in Nebraska). While the movie centers on the smaller hamlets in Nebraska, rather than the larger town of Omaha, the message resonates clearly. Love of child and aging parent, forgiveness, bonding, etc. I have been in the fictional :”hawthorne” which looks like Nebraska City, and I have been over the bridge in Lincoln. The sites and locations bring a certain bittersweet feeling when they are traveling down the road of life. The redemption found by the father is heartbreaking. Reminds me of something my youngest brother would do. Great, Great movie.

  2. Anshul says:

    Great Review!

    One correction (photo’s tagline): This film was NOT shot in B&W. It was converted later.

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