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Release Date(s)2013 (February 25, 2014)
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a melancholic meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons, and the ways in which each new generation in a family connects, or sometimes fails to, with the previous one. It’s also a unlikely buddy picture and road movie, as well as one of the funnier films of 2013.
Former SNL cast member Will Forte stars here in a rare and surprising dramatic role as David Grant, a 40-something TV peddler for a no-name electronics store in Billings, Montana. His father, Woody (Bruce Dern, in one of his finest performances) is an addled and alcoholic old man, who never seemed to give two shits about Woody and is determined to walk all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska if he has to in order to claim the million dollars he believes he’s won in a marketing sweepstakes. David knows it’s bullshit and Woody’s unfiltered and opinionated wife, Kate (June Squibb in a scene-stealing performance), has no problem saying so at every opportunity. Recognizing the stubborn strength of his father’s delusion, however, David figures the easiest way to convince him of his folly is just to give in and drive his father to Lincoln. It’s also clear that David secretly hopes he’ll have one last chance to find some kind of emotional bond with his father along the way. So the pair sets out across the Great Plains, against the advice of Kate and David’s older brother and local TV anchor, Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk in another unexpected but brilliant bit of casting). During an overnight stop while on the road, Woody goes on a bender, falls and bangs his head. After a quick hospital visit, his family decides that what’s in order is an impromptu reunion in Woody and Kate’s old hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. There, Woody’s brothers and extended family actually believe the tale of his sudden claim to riches, and the news quickly spreads around town, attracting the attention of all manner of well-wishing and opportunistic locals, including Woody’s former business partner, Ed Pegram (played by Stacy Keach), who “only wants what’s owed” to him. As David rallies to his father’s defense, he learns more than he could have imagined about Woody and discovers a few things about himself too.
As was the case in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, some of the small town personalities here are a bit exaggerated, but you’d be surprised by how little, as anyone who’s ever spent time in the small towns of the Great Plains can attest. There’s a vein of stoicism that runs deep here, and Payne, himself a native Nebraskan, mines it well indeed. It helps that Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael chose to shoot the film in black and white with anamorphic lenses, which not only perfectly captures the vast and starkly beautiful landscapes of the Great Plains, but also serves to focus your attention on the subtle nuances of the actors performances. In this part of the country, people tend to speak plainly and say a lot with very few words, and I’ve seldom seen that captured so well on screen.
Paramount’s Blu-ray offers the film in stunning B&W image quality, with terrific contrast and detail. The sound is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 by design, which is appropriate and more than enough for this story. It’s not about the surround gimmickry here. The only extra on the Blu-ray to speak of is the half-hour The Making of Nebraska featurette, but it’s quite good. Payne, the producers and all of the major cast members are interviewed and we get to see plenty of behind-the-scenes moments on location. You also get a DVD copy and UltraViolet.
Nebraska is a film rich with honesty and authenticity. It’s a uniquely American story, set in a part of the country that isn’t dying, thank you very much, but is rather simply stubbornly resistant to change. And the folks that live there wouldn’t have it any other way. If the Nebraska seems a bit bleak at first, stick with it. It rewards patience with humor, truth and lots little riches along the way.
- Bill Hunt