Tuesday, 17 December 2013


State of Payne

There are few directors in Hollywood capable of making comedy-dramas with the gentle poignancy that Alexander Payne does, and his latest, Nebraska, proves no exception to his run of successful pictures. 

Themes we’ve come to expect in Payne movies are predictably and reassuringly present once more; Nebraska is another road movie, which sees David (Will Fonte) persuaded by his father and the film’s protagonist Woody (Bruce Dern) to travel all the way from their home in Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollars, despite recognising, along with everyone else aside from Woody, that the prize is a scam.  

The pursuit of the money however turns out to be something of a MacGuffin, with the real substance of the film lying in another familiarly Payneian theme; that of the recovery of strained familial relationships. Woody, it transpires, has drunk excessively his whole life and has consequently held a distant relationship with his sons (the other, Ross, played by Breaking Bad’s Bob Obdenkirk), but David’s patient and generous spirit ensures that he is willing to try to bond with his father as they take a detour on their trip to visit Hawthorne, the small, close-knit town in which Woody grew up in. 

Bruce Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes festival last spring, and it’s easy to see why. He is quietly compelling as Woody, wearing the bemused and alternately detached and affected expression of a man apparently in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He never sentimentalises his character, but succeeds in evoking him sympathetically and humanely, and is uncommonly quiet and short of lines for a protagonist. This allows the more extroverted cast of characters revolving round him to flourish, from his bullying former business partner and nemesis Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), to his scene-stealing, matriarchal wife Kate (June Squibb, who’s granted many of the film’s best lines). 

While Payne’s previous films arguably lacked a distinctly cinematic look to them, the black and white cinematography of Nebraska lends the film a poetically understated look, in keeping with the down to earth outlook of the characters on screen. Its monochrome palate is reminiscent of the visual style of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in its sense of nostalgia for small-town America, and of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise in the plain and underwhelmed manner it depicts its landscapes (at one point David decides to stop off at Mount Rushmore, only for Woody to shrug his shoulders and complain that ‘it doesn’t look finished'). 

Finally, Nebraska is also very funny. The tone is deadpan throughout, with a selection of set-pieces that deliver particularly heavy laughs. And though Woody is something of a tragic figure, his simple and uncomplicated way of looking at life proves ripe for many more laughs. 

Crucially, the film manages to be funny without ever condescending its characters; rather, it’s the fondness it clearly reserves for them that makes the film such a poignant, funny and warm experience, and arguably, especially considering the moving pathos of the final scene, Payne’s best film to date. 


No comments:

Post a Comment