×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Nebraska’

Alexander Payne's sixth feature is another low-concept, finely etched study of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves.

With:
Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan.

After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii (for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” respectively), Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska for his sixth directorial feature, a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Sporting a career-crowning performance by Bruce Dern and a thoroughly impressive dramatic turn by “SNL”/“30 Rock” alum Will Forte, Payne’s first film based on another writer’s original screenplay (by debut feature scribe Bob Nelson) nevertheless fits nicely alongside his other low-concept, finely etched studies of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves. Black-and-white lensing and lack of a Clooney-sized star portend less than “Descendants”-sized business, but critical hosannas and awards buzz should mean solid prestige success for this November Paramount release.

Just as “The Last Picture Show” was a movie made in the 1970s about the end of ’50s-era innocence, “Nebraska” feels, despite its present-day setting, like a eulogy for a bygone America (and American cinema), from the casting of New Hollywood fixtures Dern and Stacy Keach to its many windswept vistas of a vital agro-industrial heartland outsourced into irrelevance. First seen trudging alone along a busy stretch of Montana highway, Dern’s Woody Grant is a man who, like his surroundings, seems to have outlived his usefulness, an ornery alcoholic whose bouts of confusion have put a strain on his marriage to Kate (“About Schmidt’s” June Squibb) and caused sons David (Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to worry that he might be losing his mind. Offering further evidence to support this claim, Woody has become convinced he’s won $1 million in a Publisher’s Clearing House-like sweepstakes — a prize he insists on collecting in person at the company’s HQ in Lincoln, Neb.

Though more levelheaded parties insist that the money is bogus, Woody cannot be deterred. Asked what he’ll do with his “winnings,” he announces his intention to buy a new truck — even though he can no longer drive — and a new air compressor (to replace one he loaned to a friend 40 years ago). But like the children’s playground commissioned by the dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” or the interstate tractor journey undertaken by the Iowa farmer of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” Woody’s quest is really a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to a life. So David reluctantly agrees to take Dad on the road, as much out of pity as to escape his own broken-down situation, working a dead-end retail job and recently dumped by his live-in girlfriend.

What follows is, like many of Payne’s films, a road movie of sorts, winding its way through Wyoming and South Dakota, slate-colored skies hanging over pastureland and lonely blacktop, last-stop diners standing on the edge of nowhere. The widescreen monochrome imagery, shot by Payne’s longtime d.p. Phedon Papamichael, is at once ravishing and melancholy, evoking both Robert Surtees’ “Picture Show” lensing and a host of iconic American still photography (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.) without calling undue attention to itself.

Eventually, father and son make a pit stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne (actually, Norfolk, Neb.), where it doesn’t take long for the incipient millionaire to become headline news, like the ersatz war hero (also named Woody) at the center of Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero.” Nor does Woody seem to mind the attention, even as it brings all manner of moocher out of the woodwork, including more than a few family members and a former business partner (the coy, flinty Keach) with an old score to settle. Everyone, it seems, wants — or perhaps needs — to believe in Woody’s dream as much as he does.

Throughout, Payne gently infuses the film’s comic tone with strains of longing and regret, always careful to avoid the maudlin or cheaply sentimental. (A couple of nincompoop nephews, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray, rep the pic’s only real concession to slapstick.) In a series of lovely, understated scenes, David finds himself learning secondhand about the taciturn father he has never really known, meeting an ex-flame (Angela McEwan) who competed with his mother for Woody’s affections, hearing rumors of a possible extramarital affair, gleaning details about Woody’s service in the Korean War. Finally, rejoined by Kate and Ross for the final leg of the journey, the entire family visits the farmhouse where Woody grew up, now a decrepit mausoleum of farm-belt prosperity. The closer the characters get to Lincoln, the more they appear to be receding into the past, culminating in one magnificent sequence that equates a drive down a small main street with the span of an entire life lived.

Dern is simply marvelous in a role the director reportedly first offered to Gene Hackman, but which is all the richer for being played by someone who was never as big of a star. Looking suitably disheveled and sometimes dazed, he conveys the full measure of a man who has fallen short of his own expectations, resisting the temptation to overplay, letting his wonderfully weathered face course with subtle shades of sorrow, self-loathing and indignation. Given the less innately attention-getting role (a la Tom Cruise in “Rain Man”), Forte does similarly nuanced work, his scenes with Dern resonating with the major and minor grievances that lie unresolved between parents and children. Had Payne not already used it, “The Descendants” would have been an equally apt title here, so acute is the film’s sense of the virtues and vices passed down from one generation to the next.

Keach and Squibb (bumped off early in “About Schmidt,” getting to go the full distance here) also stand out in a resolutely un-starry cast, full of convincingly ordinary, plainspoken Midwesterners. In addition to Papamichael’s camerawork, the plaintive guitar-and-fiddle score by Mark Orton is another craft standout.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'Nebraska'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 22, 2013. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production: A Paramount (in U.S.)/Diaphana (in France) release of a Paramount Vantage presentation in association with FilmNation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment of a Bona Fide production. Produced by Albert Berga, Ron Yerxa. Executive producers, George Parra, Julie M. Thompson, Doug Mankoff, Neil Tabatznik.

Crew: Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay, Bob Nelson. Camera (B&W, Deluxe, widescreen, 35mm), Phedon Papamichael; editor, Kevin Tent; music, Mark Orton; executive music producer, Richard Ford; production designer, Dennis Washington; art director, Sandy Veneziano; set decorator, Beauchamp Fontaine; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), Jose Antonio Garcia; sound designer, Frank Gaeta; re-recording mixers, Gaeta, Patrick Cyccone Jr.; visual effects, Barnstorm VFX, Furious FX; stunt coordinator, Erik Rondell; second unit camera, Radan Popovic; assistant director, George Parra; casting, John Jackson.

With: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan.

More Film

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content