I'm going to come right out and say it, Alexander Payne's Nebraska features my favourite performance of 2013 and it's not Bruce Dern as Woody, wonderful though he is. She may only be on screen for around fifteen minutes in total but June Squibb, playing Woody's long suffering wife Kate, steals every scene she's in. It's a firecracker performance that illuminates the screen, biting and fizzing, leaving you hanging on her every word. I should also add that she reminds me of my own mother, and for that reason, the very thought of her performance makes me feel warm and fuzzy.
I first saw the film back in October and, while I admired its performances and poignant themes relating to aging and confronting a distant past, I initially felt it wasn't quite at the level of Alexander Payne's best work (Election). However, since that viewing, it has grown in stature in my memory, a good deal more than films I had preferred, and I find myself revisiting key scenes. I can't wait to see it again.
The performances throughout are perfectly judged and the film has a timeless quality, much of this is down to Phedon Papamichael's beautiful black and white photography. The cast of characters is predominantly of a more mature age and the, at times, tragic predicaments that unfold, lead us to consider issues relating to our own aging. None more so than Bruce Dern's Woody Grant.
Woody is a cantankerous 70-something who receives an item of junk mail through the post informing him that he's won one million dollars. All he has to do to claim his prize is travel from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings in person and inform the senders which magazines he's decided to subscribe to. It's an obvious scam but Woody's mental fragility means he's unable to recognise it. His family do their best to dissuade him from making the trip but Woody is nothing, if not stubborn, and he won't be told.
His youngest son David (Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to drive him to Lincoln to collect his non-existent winnings and what follows is essentially a road movie. Woody's home town happens to be on the way to Lincoln and is a convenient stop-over, bringing him into contact with people he had long since forgotten, who all have designs on his new found wealth. The most vicious is Stacy Keach's slimy, Ed Pegram, Woody's former business associate who is unable to forget perceived long standing debts.
Payne always shows great affection for smalltown America and once again he expertly details the quirks and idiosyncracies of the communities he examines. Bruce Dern won the Best Actor prize at Cannes in May and his performance is fully deserving of every accolade. Woody is a stoic, salty character and Dern, using little dialogue, makes him a fully formed, tragic man, giving us a glimpse of a future that is perhaps waiting for many of us. It is 84-year-old Squibb though who remains the stand-out performer. If indie films worked on the same lines as blockbusters, she'd already be filming her spin-off film and I'd be first in the queue.