'Nebraska' (2013) Movie Review - Cannes Film Festival

Nebraska movie review
Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Nebraska
Photo: Paramount Vantage

Set in the wide expanses of middle America, Alexander Payne's Nebraska still manages to feel small and claustrophobic a lot of the time. While in some ways the film is charming and gentle, it's largely acidic and sour. The motivations at the heart of the film are love, but the weathered and worn souls that inhabit Payne's windswept, black-and-white landscape, conjuring memories of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, are either too tired or too afraid to admit they even care any longer. The weight of this burden is not only seen on the characters' faces but felt by the audience throughout.

Grade: C+

Nebraska"Nebraska" is a Paramount Pictures release, directed by Alexander Payne and is rated R for some language. The running time is .

The cast includes Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach and June Squibb.

Meet Woody (Bruce Dern), the grumbling, aged soul at the center of Payne's story. He received a "winning" sweepstakes mailer, the kind most of us know to throw away, and now believes he's the winner of one million dollars. Tucking his winning ticket into his left breast pocket, he's made up his mind he's going to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska and collect his winnings in person. As he tells his son David (Will Forte), he's not "trusting the mail with one million dollars!"

The film begins with Woody meandering down the freeway as the gentle, guitar-driven score from Mark Orton eases us into the picture. A police officer brings him back home and after several more episodes David decides he'll just take him to Nebraska himself rather than risk the chance he'll venture out on his own once more.

David's mother, Kate (June Squibb), is against the idea and isn't afraid to voice her opinion in ways that cut straight through any bullshit. Woody's drinking has clearly been a problem for his entire life and hints of his time in the Korean War also add to the mystery of his back-story, giving us just enough to paint a general picture of his life. But it isn't all sadness. Some people talk of Woody's kind heart and his inability to say "no" to anyone and for as many times as we hear his wife call him an "idiot", there's no mistaking her love for him late in the film. I just wish this love was a little more apparent, and didn't have to be realized through nonstop acidic hate.

The negativity, selfishness and hate hit me pretty hard. For one, because the characters feel so real and two, because Woody and David's journey felt so predestined it was the only thing left to focus on.

For example, David and Woody's road trip finds them stopping over in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska to visit family. Here we meet two of David's cousins, a couple of fat slobs who spend most of their time laying about on the couch, watching television with their nearly catatonic father (Rance Howard). David sits down and the two ask him how long it took to get there from Billings. He explains they were sidetracked for nearly a day and it ended up taking two days as a result. They laugh and poke fun, and all David does is sit there, absorbing their laughter and ridicule rather than correct their stupidity and misunderstanding.

Along these same lines, nearly everyone in Hawthorne comes across as either sad, selfish, stupid, pathetic or some combination thereof. In another example, hoping to impress old acquaintances, Woody tells them of the million dollars he's headed to collect and an old friend of his, Ed Pegram played by Stacy Keach, sees the opportunity to take advantage of a man he knows to have a heart for helping others. While David stands up for his father, it never feels like enough, not while it's happening and not in the end. Especially considering the only redemption to be had means showing these people up, a tactic more likely to enrage people further rather than teach a lesson.

However, to be fair, the film isn't entirely filled with negativity. Some of the members of Hawthorne, where much of the film takes place, are genuinely happy for Woody's good fortune. A small role played by Angela McEwan as one of Woody's early loves is heart-breaking in both her kindness and sweet heart when we first meet her and the sad history of a love lost worn on her face in the film's final moments.

I mention all of this realizing I've always had a problem with ignorance in films. I hate watching people take advantage of others when there is little that can be done and especially when the damage has already set in. That said, I can't honestly say the film judges all of its characters fairly.

Through all of these characters we're meant to come to an understanding of Woody, but it's done through the negativity of others with very little care or compassion. The people of Hawthorne are presented as simple, if not downright dumb, and even as David's mother comes into town they stop off at a cemetery so she can "pay her respects" and yet she spends the entire time gossiping about every last dead body in the ground. We may learn Woody had a younger brother that died of scarlet fever and a sister that also passed away, but when Kate insists on telling us his sister was a whore, having sex with people since she was 15 and up until she died at 19 how exactly does that benefit the film or our understanding of Woody who can only saunter back to the car rather than listen to any more of her vitriol? It may offer insight into a sad past, but what loving wife would bring it up so callously?

Understandably, all of these people play a role in the life Payne has chosen to focus on, but all the negativity it takes to get to the true heart of his character makes it a rather oppressive watch. Nebraska is a very well made film with a few minor laughs, but the overall vibe I received while watching makes it a hard film to entirely enjoy.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

    Brad, with just a couple of good films and so many bad ones, would you return to Cannes next year? Is it worth it?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Bad ones? This has probably been the best year I've had at Cannes ever. Four "A" grade films out of 19 with Behind the Candelabra at a B+, Seduced and Abandoned at a B? You don't get that kind of ratio hardly ever, not to mention the chance to see and review films that may not make it to the States for a long time. I think heading to Cannes, as long as I can afford it and as long as people are reading, is always going to be worth it. It is the Mecca for cinema fans.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/maja/ maja

        Glad you're enjoying Cannes, Brad :) really enjoying all the reviews. Appreciate your hard work.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

        You're right I guess I was thinking that at least ten films were C's or below. I just seemed like a lot.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lalecture/ lalecture

        I am soooo grateful you were able to attend the fest this year. So many fantastic reviews of what seems to be another season full of parody when it comes to talent, creativity and awards season. Thanks for all of your hard work Brad. Did you remember to bring back a croissant for me?!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    even though i will definitely see them both, i still prefer character based drama's like Nebraska over highly stylised ones like Only God Forgives

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/BradyD/ Andrew Dowd

    How was Will Forte's performance? I was brought up watching Saturday Night Live and still continue watching the show to this day (despite its downgrading quality).

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      He was solid, nothing terribly great, but played the role well.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Cordia/ Cordia

    Brad, since is skimmed you're review and you may have adressed in in there, why do you think this was made in black and white? could you answer this without spoiling it?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      It would appear to be more for just the aesthetic feel and a harkening back to films such as Last Picture Show and other pieces of cinematic Americana from the black and white era.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    I was expecting a little better, but I'll still check this out.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/DapperDanMan/ DapperDanMan

    This is a film I am looking forward too... And though you gave ut a C+... Based on uour description in your review it sounds like the film affected you on an emotional level... Moreso than in other reviews I have read on here... Could it be that the overall sadness and goodness that makes up Woody is because of the negativity of the people he has surrounded him with over the years... Whether they be his family or friends... Having not seen the movie yet, it does sound like that is the point and drives the character to do what he does... I have a feeling you will probably revisit this film in a couple years and up your initial grade... As it feels to be one of those types of films...

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheMovieGuru/ The Movie Guru

    Had a feeling that this was coming.

  • RohanMM

    Often agree with you, Brad, but I think C+ is way too low for this.