Review – Nebraska

The desperate search for fulfillment that so preoccupies the leading men of Alexander Payne’s films finds its zenith in this beautifully crafted elegy to small town America.

Tragic and melancholy; funny and touching, Nebraska is another triumph from one of cinema's most richly distinctive voices

Tragic and melancholy; funny and touching, Nebraska is another triumph from one of cinema’s most richly distinctive voices

A corrosive thread of sadness and frustration connects Matthew Broderick’s high school teacher in Election (1999), Jack Nicholson’s retired widower in About Schmidt (2002), Paul Giamatti’s wannabe novelist and wine obsessive in Sideways (2004) and George Clooney’s Hawaii-based attorney in The Descendants (2011).

Life has worn each of them down, but not as much as Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the grizzled geriatric at the centre of Payne’s bittersweet and understated sixth feature Nebraska.

Father and son, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte) hit the road in Nebraska

Father and son, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte) hit the road in Nebraska

We’re first introduced to Woody as he’s shuffling along the highway – as lost and enigmatic a figure as Paris, Texas‘ Travis Henderson. The reason for his wanderings reveals itself when he explains to his son David (Will Forte) that he was on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect a $1m sweepstake prize he has supposedly won.

Against his better judgement, David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln despite knowing the letter he received is almost certainly a scam. Their trip takes them through Hawthorne, Woody’s dead-end home town, where they visit relatives and bump into his old business partner Ed (Stacey Keach), before being joined by Woody’s outspoken wife Kate (June Squibb) and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk).

Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate (June Squibb) squabble in Nebraska

Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate (June Squibb) squabble in Nebraska

Following the fine tradition of the road movie, an emotional journey is taken alongside the physical one as the wall of ice that has built up around Woody and David begins to thaw and the son begins to understand and come to terms with the father.

The film may be gloriously shot by Payne’s longtime DP Phedon Papamichael in magnificent monochrome, but that’s the only thing black and white about Nebraska.

Family time for David (Will Forte) and brother Ross (Bill Odenkirk) in Nebraska

Family time for David (Will Forte) and brother Ross (Bill Odenkirk) in Nebraska

Payne’s blacky comic script doesn’t pull any punches and makes subtle observations about self-entitlement and the quiet desperation many of us feel for something to go our way.

Asked what he would do with the $1m, Woody shrugs his shoulders and can only think of buying a new truck and an air compressor. In spite of having a limited shopping list, what really motivates Woody is the thought of finally having something substantial that’s his and no-one else’s.

The quietly desperate Woody (Bruce Dern) in Nebraska

The quietly desperate Woody (Bruce Dern) in Nebraska

When Woody lets slip his impending payday while in Hawthorne, he becomes an overnight local celebrity; a development he appears both confused and quietly pleased about. While many are genuinely pleased for Woody, others, Ed in particular, try to pressure him into making good on old debts he’s supposedly accrued.

It’s a rich and nuanced performance from Dern, easily the best he has given for many, many years. Woody isn’t a terribly likeable character, but he’s all-too-human. We, along with David, discover what a flawed man he is through the many mistakes he’s made over the course of a long life; but equally we get a sense of the terrible childhood he must have endured and the scars left by war that carved him into the man he has become.

Like father, like son... David (Will Forte) in Nebraska

Like father, like son… David (Will Forte) in Nebraska

David sees the road trip as a chance to finally get to know his father. Certain home truths are tough to hear; most notably Woody’s matter-of-fact explanation that love “never came up” when it came to marriage to Kate and that they had kids because he “liked to screw”. David is also more alike to his father than he would care to admit; both are stubborn and lead unfulfilled lives.

A veteran of Saturday Night Live, Forte navigates the demands of a dramatic role with ease and plays wonderfully off Dern. The looks of mild confusion and annoyance he shoots at Woody are nicely counterbalanced later in the film by the pride and childlike love he displays.

Payne has a natural skill in handling actors and also helps to bring out great performances from Keach, Odenkirk and Squibb, who gets to let her hair down (and lift her skirt up, but we won’t go into that) with a wonderfully written role.

Tragic and melancholy; funny and touching, Nebraska is another triumph from one of cinema’s most richly distinctive voices.


  1. jjames36 · March 4, 2014

    Good review. Definitely another good Payne flick this one.

  2. The Silver Screen · March 4, 2014

    Brilliantly written review to match one of my favourite films of the past 12 months!

    • Three Rows Back · March 4, 2014

      You’re too kind! Thanks very much; glad you liked it as much as I did πŸ™‚

  3. ckckred · March 5, 2014

    Nice review. Loved this movie as well and I agree with your assessment on Bruce Dern. His performance is really amazing.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      It is isn’t it? Dern has been sidelined in thankless supporting roles for too many years now; it’s great to see him back on top.

  4. cindybruchman · March 5, 2014

    I have a lot of respect for Payne. His choice for black and white cinematography to illustrate the bleak season and the bleak life of the characters was a wise choice. I loved the son’s gesture at the end to save face for the Dad. It was a great gesture.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      That’s a nice assessment Cindy; like that. I know the ending has come under fire from certain quarters, but I for one felt it was a lovely moment that provided a nice conclusion. Thanks for the feedback πŸ™‚

  5. CMrok93 · March 5, 2014

    Payne has done better in the past, but this was still a suitable entry into his long-winding category of sad, lonely people who need a sense of meaning in their lives. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Thanks Dan. I still find Sideways to be his crowning achievement, but this is right up there.

  6. CinemaClown · March 5, 2014

    Great review. Absolutely brilliant.

    As for the film, it’s Alexander Payne’s finest so far, in my opinion.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Thank you! I would say I prefer Sideways, but it’s very much down to personal opinion. That being said, I really enjoyed this on many levels.

  7. Tom · March 5, 2014

    Man, I love this review almost as much as I loved the film it discusses. Nebraska was wonderful, wasn’t it? There were some truly heartbreaking moments in a movie that ostensibly looks like it goes nowhere. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but from those who i have seen who did manage to get to it, they’ve loved it.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Thanks a bunch Tom, you really are too kind buddy. Keep the pleasantries coming! It sure was something. I like what you say about a film that ostensibly looks like it goes nowhere – in spite of it being a road movie! The film harks back to the golden age of Hollywood back in the 70s, especially bearing in mind Dern is the lead.

  8. Mark Walker · March 5, 2014

    Excellent review of an excellent movie, Mark. It’s a shame it didn’t do well at the oscars but it’s still one of the best films over the last year.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Thanks so much Mark. The Oscars have ignored so many great films over the years I barely notice. This film will stand the test of time.

  9. Popcorn Nights · March 5, 2014

    Nice review Mark. I really liked this, thought it looked fantastic and thoroughly enjoyed the performances. Touching and funny – my favourite Payne film since Election and I reckon it’s up there with some of the very best road movies.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Much appreciated. I’d definitely go along with pretty much all you’ve said. The only thing I would disagree with is my favourite Payne film. For me it’s Sideways, although I do love Election too πŸ™‚

  10. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · March 5, 2014

    Stellar review mate. Was bummed I missed this at cinemas but I shall be checking it out as soon as I can. Heard so many good things about it.

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Thanks for that Chris; you’re very kind. I reckon you’ll really enjoy this. Hope you get to see it soon as I’d love to read what you think.

  11. ruth · March 5, 2014

    Fantastic review Mark, I was so pleasantly surprised by this one and thus this one made my top 10 of the year. I actually liked this more than The Descendants which was already VERY good! I reddited your review btw πŸ˜€

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      Thank you for the Reddit! Had I watched this in 2013 it would have made my Top 10 (not that I’ve done one!). It’s a much better film than The Descendants, which I feel is Payne’s weakest film.

  12. Victor De Leon · March 6, 2014

    Great job and I love your perspective of the movie! I really enjoyed this film. Made my Top 5 list of 2013. I was very surprised by it. Like you said, Dern was truly masterful and nuanced in his portrayal. Can’t wait to re-visit it.

    • Three Rows Back · March 6, 2014

      Top 5 eh? Not sure it would be quite as high as that for me but boy I really loved it. Top 10 probably.

      • Victor De Leon · March 6, 2014

        The reason I threw it up in my Top 5 is because I found the film so wonderful to look at. I got lost in the imagery and pallette created by the DP.

        Also, because I didn’t get out to the theaters all that much in 2013, lol πŸ™‚

  13. Nostra · March 9, 2014

    Really nicely written review. I like that fact that Woody does not know what he would do with the money as well πŸ™‚

    • Three Rows Back · March 15, 2014

      Thank you my friend (sorry for the late reply). I really liked Woody as a character; he’s got plenty of flaws, but don’t we all?

  14. alexraphael · March 15, 2014

    Didn’t get round to seeing this. Will have to remedy that. Neat review.

    • Three Rows Back · March 21, 2014

      Thanks man. Do make sure to check it out; it’s a real gem.


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