AFI Fest: Nebraska (★★★★)

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Nebraska

Occasionally, a film will come along that, as soon as the credits roll, I immediately want to watch it again. That was the case with Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska.

Set in the red states of the Big Sky Midwest is the story of Woody (Bruce Dern), an aging and grumpy alcoholic determined to get from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a million dollar prize he believes he’s won from a publishing clearinghouse. After several thwarted attempts to walk to Lincoln, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) finally and reluctantly agrees to drive him there. Along the way, they are forced to stop in Woody’s hometown, a place they haven’t been in many years. It is at this incidental family reunion where the story really begins to take shape.

Bruce Dern is flawless. Woody is a man of few words, and Dern manages to convey so much emotion and power in the limited dialogue of an old man who simply has little left to say. His connection with the audience is so strong, you can’t help but hope that prize money is real. It is the best performance of his long career and a performance that will surely garner him a lot of attention at Oscar time.

Equally engaging is Will Forte as Woody’s younger son, David. Forte’s portrayal is understated in all the right ways as David quietly, patiently deals with his father’s confusion, frustration, and stubbornness. After years of mediocre characters on Saturday Night Live, Forte shines in this role and demonstrates a depth of skill I never would have expected from him. I hope this is the beginning of a rich and robust chapter in Forte’s career. Together, Forte and Dern share some intensely emotional scenes as equal co-leads, rather than as lead and supporting actor.

Woody and David

June Squibb

Balancing out Woody’s quiet demeanor is his outspoken and long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb) in a scene-stealing performance. Squibb has the funniest lines of the film and she delivers them with a biting wit that is perfectly timed and wonderfully executed. One memorable scene finds the family paying their respects at the local cemetery where Kate highlights for David some of his interesting heritage from the in-laws for which she has little good to say. In fact, Kate has little good to say about anyone and Squibb plays the part with ease. She is hilarious without going over the top and is sure to find her name among this year’s Oscar contenders too.

Rounding out the cast are Bob Odenkirk  as David’s older brother, Ross, and the two brothers have some very funny moments together that reveal the type of rocky upbringing they shared; Rance Howard is Woody’s older brother; and Stacy Keach plays the sleazy old friend and former business partner, Ed Pegram. It is a great cast in which there are no weak links and each actor plays off the next with a feel that is genuine and realistic. They bring to life a wonderful script by screenwriter Bob Nelson.

Nelson’s script and Payne’s direction provide many opportunities for both cast and crew to shine in their respective roles. Phedon Papamichael‘s cinematography is rich and beautiful, demonstrating both the vastness of the region’s wide open spaces and the close confines of a car on a road trip.

The black and white may at first seem like a gimmick, but its use provides the audience an opportunity to focus in tight on the characters and their interactions, rather than being distracted by anything happening in the background. It also, in its subtle way, gives the audience an insight into Woody and the way he sees the world.

The score by Mark Orton only serves to add to the story, taking nothing away from it, and Kevin Tent‘s editing keeps perfect pace, slowing when necessary, but never plodding.

This is absolutely one of the year’s best films. Payne, who has been loved by the Academy with such films as About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, is a master at character-driven stories and this is his finest work. Early buzz on this film has been almost universally positive and well deserved. It’s beautiful in every way, including an ending that is both logical and deeply satisfying, and will very likely find its way to several Oscar nominations this year.