Sunday, December 15, 2013

Love: Nebraska


I've been living under a rock for the last few weeks. That means that though I've gone out of my way to check out a few movies, I've read absolutely nothing about them.  So, I know people are generally receiving Nebraska with open arms, but I'm not sure exactly how or exactly why.  Someone told me that people keep telling them that this is the movie where Alexander Payne, a director who has been at the helm of any number of critical successes, finally learns how to "make a movie."  The person who told me this was wholly dubious of the claim, certain that it all it meant was that Payne (a director they find boring) zeroed in his focus on a story even more quiet and personal and mundane than the films that have come before it.  To tell the truth, I hadn't been sure how I'd felt about Nebraska up til that point. I liked it just fine, but wasn't sure it deserved the heaps of awards praise it seemed to be acquiring.  When I heard this sort of dismissive read of the film, though, my immediate urge to defend it took hold.  I guess that's the kind of film it is: one that feels like family. You're allowed to knock it a bit, but someone else? An outsider? They just need to shut their mouths.   

Of course, in many ways, Nebraska seems designed to inspire precisely that protective feeling. Payne's drama is a quiet, family affair in a no-frills black and white that allows the characters themselves to add color to an otherwise stark landscape. Part road movie, part comedy of errors, the film is an intimate glance into a family forced into adventure by the stubborn delusions of their usually quiet patriarch, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern).  Convinced that the spoils of a million dollar sweepstakes await him in Nebraska, Woody has been repeatedly attempting to walk his way out of Billings, Montana to collect what's rightfully his.  Of course, the money is non-existent, and his wife (June Squibb) and adult sons repeatedly attempt to convince him that it's nothing but a con job.  Woody, though, can't be deterred.  So, hoping to put an end to his dad's repeat attempts at escape, David (Will Forte) loads frustrating old Woody into a car and takes him on a road trip that winds up crossing back through the family's past.

The trappings are, of course, extremely humble and small-scale. It's as easy to dismiss the gestures it's making as it is to overhype them as a corrective for the loud, clattering blockbusters.  Dern, Forte, and Squibb are all charming to watch, all utterly convincing, but I'd argue it's not really the acting that makes the movie what it is.  Though these are quieter, gentler turns for Dern and Forte both, they're aided tremendously by the corralling influence of the film's construction. It's the way we approach the characters through the larger plot elements, the carefully timed way that small details are revealed, events occur, and the gentle, contemplative camerawork used to capture them that delivers. Nebraska plays out like a tightly constructed short story in which we're moved by the prose even before we find something 'other' to latch onto in the characters.   
The deeper one travels into the film, the richer it becomes. Though there's not much that's truly surprising or revelatory about the film as an art object, it's a sturdy piece of work that manages to slowly endear the characters to the viewer and to pick up on the little things.  Nebraska reads as organic material, but unlike so many meandering indies, it gets to where it's going and seems to be the better for it.  As Woody and David's story unfolds, we find a surprising amount of humor and spirit that colors the unlikable curmudgeon as quite accidentally lovable.  It's an odd turn, a sort of happy sad that proves that Hollywood's standards and aesthetics can't touch the world Nebraska inhabits.  That, more than it's pacing or relative quiet, is what makes it better than the bulk of Payne's past work.  It doesn't feel like a vehicle for a bravura performance and is instead just left to become a good, story-driven movie.

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