Filmmaker Alexander Payne makes a mixtape of his best films, and it's a huge success.
Lee Zachariah
February 17, 2014


Ageing Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he's won a fortune. A piece of junk mail tells him he must travel to Nebraska to collect his million dollars, and he refuses to believe that it might be less than the truth. When his family finally accepts that he's going to go no matter what, they grudgingly agree to accompany him, with his son David (Will Forte) taking him on the trip. Along the way, they encounter family members and old acquaintances, all of whom feel Woody owes them something. Woody's imagined fortune becomes the talk of the town, as old grievances and closeted skeletons make themselves known.

Director Alexander Payne, who achieved critical attention with his films Citizen Ruth and Election, hits his stride with a mixtape of his biggest hits. Like About Schmidt, there is a self-centred patriarch on a journey; like The Descendants, the countryside is innately tied to familial secrets; like Sideways, there is a sudden heist to reclaim lost property. Nobody does family secrets like Payne, and Nebraska sees him at the peak of his powers.

Dern, who has been a reliable supporting actor for decades, finally gets his shot at a starring role, and it's impossible to overstate how astonishingly good he is as Woody. There's no self-consciousness as he plays a vague, alcoholic man in search of a fortune he decides he's owed.

Forte, best known for his turns on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, nails the knowing pathos of Woody's suffering son, and the casting of Breaking Bad's Bob Odenkirk as his older brother is inspired. June Squibb, who is probably best remembered as Jack Nicholson's ill-fated wife in About Schmidt, shines as Woody's wife: gossipy and accepting, dismissive and loyal. The more you examine these characters, the more it becomes clear that they are riddled with contradictions in the way that human beings often are but movie characters are not. This is the film's biggest triumph, and a testament to the combined efforts of Payne, the cast, and writer Bob Nelson's confident script.

Also notable is the brilliant score by Mark Orton, which echoes the film's pared-back simplicity with a low-key soundtrack that manages to stick in your brain in the best way possible.

Filmed in black and white, and dwelling on the uglier, blander side of middle America, Nebraska should be a depressing experience draped in award-grabbing worthiness. But it's not. In fact, it's laugh-out-loud funny throughout, and unexpectedly uplifting. There's a joyful tension that infuses every moment and makes this one of the most compelling, memorable, essential films of the year.


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