Film & TV

Review – Nebraska

Although its title may suggest otherwise, Nebraska is not so much a film about the US Midwestern state. It’s not even necessarily about the journey there by the Grant family from Billings, Montana. Rather, it is an exploration by director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) of small-town, middle American mentality and of family life in middle America.

The Grant family, the family that Nebraska concerns, is particularly ordinary. Living in Montana, we are introduced to the immediate members of the family, including the father, two sons and the mother.

The father, Woody (Bruce Dern) is convinced he is the winner of a million dollars after receiving a sweepstakes flyer. Although his son, David (Will Forte), knows that the flyer is just a scam to promote magazine sales, Woody is convinced he is now a millionaire and regularly strays from home, walking along highways towards Nebraska state, where his supposed prize money awaits him.

David eventually succumbs to his father’s whim to travel to Nebraska and begins the trip across the Midwest, stopping for a family get-together along the way.

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Veteran actor Bruce Dern plays the patriarch of the family fantastically, transforming himself into a disoriented, whimsical mess for the performance. Will Forte plays his role as David calmly, assuredly and naturalistically. Director Alexander Payne remarked he cast Forte in the role because he could imagine seeing him as a regular guy walking around Montana, and this is a perfect description. Dern and Forte are backed up by great supporting performances by June Squibb and Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk.

Payne’s film is a nostalgic piece of cinema which examines parts of American life that exist out of the normal settings of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

Payne’s decision to shoot the film in black and white gives it a visual uniqueness that reminded me of Raymond Carver’s writings. The characters are not atypically Carver-esque but the banal and dirty locations such as the bars that Woody and David frequently visit and the people that inhibit the small towns reminded me of the poetic banality of Carver’s short stories.


The scene of the family get-together in the town in Hawthorne, exemplifies the small-town American mentality that this film explores exceptionally, as the family are amazed by Woody’s new found ‘fortune’ of a million dollars . The script, written by Bob Nelson, is witty and natural, and the monochrome cinematography is aesthetically pleasing.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska may not pack the emotional punch  of Steve McQueen’s utter masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave, the visually wonderment of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity or of the 70’s homage American Hustle. However, Payne’s film is a nostalgic piece of cinema which examines parts of American life that exist out of the normal settings of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

Through the Grants and their extended family in the Midwest, Nebraska portrays middle American family life and middle American mentality superbly and fascinatingly.

Thomas Willis


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