Wednesday 24 December 2014

Nebraska (2014) - Movie Review

Escapism is a peculiar thing: By its very nature, it is meant to help us escape from the real world through fiction, yet it seems to affect us more the closer to reality it is. Maybe it’s because it helps give a better view of our own lives through an outside observer, or maybe it’s just because we like the idea of familiarity in an unfamiliar place, but for whatever the reason this seems to be the case. Personally, I use escapist fiction as therapy: A means for me to cathartically let free whatever pent-up feelings and emotions I have, be they anger, melancholy, giddiness, thirst for knowledge or what have you, in a way that doesn’t interfere with those around me. With this idea of therapeutic escapism in mind, let’s look at today’s film.

The plot: Woody (Bruce Dern) receives a letter announcing that he won a $1 million sweepstakes and to come to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect it. His sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), along with Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb), try to tell him that it is an obvious mail scam but he is still determined to collect his winnings. David eventually decides to drive him on a road trip to Lincoln, if for nothing more than to get him to shut up about it.

This is a very impressive script with subtle yet very emotional writing. On the way to Lincoln, Woody and David arrive in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska and, upon talking with family and old friends, Woody’s past gets dug up for better and for worse: His struggles after returning from Vietnam, his constant drinking, his purportedly bad money-handling, not to mention his romantic relationships. It seems that everyone in this film is fixated, sometimes to an unhealthy degree, with what has been and gone, save for one person: Woody himself.

Woody focuses far more on the present, wanting to just the most of what little time he has left being as content as he can be given his circumstances. Not only that, he wants to do the best he can for his sons as well, leave them with memories that keep him in their minds as more than just a drunk with a pipe dream. This latter point is made even better because of how good Dern and Forte are at portraying that father-son relationship. The director, Alexander Payne, reportedly signed on Forte to be in the role because he would be more believable in said role and he isn’t half wrong. Forte may have more experience with straight-up comedies, as his history as a cast member Saturday Night Live and the voice of Lincoln in The LEGO Movie, but here he shows a lot of talent in a more serious role. This is The Judge levels of believability that these two actors could be real father and son, if not more so.

All this is easily enough for a film to go on, but a little further digging shows something else that actually hits even closer to home and it all leads back to what I started this review talking about: Escapism. Throughout the film, Woody’s family does their best to convince him, and everyone he tells the news to, that he didn’t actually win anything and that he’s just chasing a fantasy. However, it can easily be argued that, despite how distant Woody seems to be at times, he is aware that the $1 million is just a fantasy but he is chasing it regardless… and no-one can blame him. Even before the road trip begins, we already see him using alcohol to get away from everything and given how much of a cad Kate is to him, I hardly blame him. Kate, while it is clear that she loves him, is completely unable to hold her tongue about what she thinks of people, least of all her husband: Very controlling, very negative, very condescending at times, and while her performance does lead to some laughs in that kooky grandmother kind of way, there’s a definite annoyance with the character as well.

Not only that, it is clear that Woody likes the positive attention he gets from the people of Hawthorne find out about his ‘winnings’, who congratulate him and cheer him on. Of course, with adoration comes people wanting to settle old debts, some going to rather extreme lengths to do so, but that only adds to it: *SPOILERS* When the townspeople get a hold of the sweepstakes letter, and realise that he hasn’t won anything, you can visibly see Woody weaken as if something has been taken from him like going after that fortune was the only thing keeping him going, making a rather heart-breaking moment.

To add to this, it seems like David shares in his father’s want to escape from how sucky the real world can be. We are shown that David is also unhappy with his life, going through a recent breakup and lack of business at his work, and almost seems to want to chase his father’s fantasy as well. He is shown numerous in the film being the enabler to his father’s wishes like agreeing to drive him to Lincoln in the first place and having drinks with him despite Woody’s problems with alcohol. He admits that he is going along with the charade as a means of just pleasing his dad, but you can definitely see how much that means to him through the writing and how well Forte plays the role. This eventually culminates in a pretty outstanding ending, where both Woody and David’s character arcs reach their pinnacle and result in one of the heart-warming moments in cinema this year.

All in all, this is a bit of a slow burner but a very solid film. With how well the script, the performances and the direction, not to mention the simple but fitting musical score, all fit together here, I’d be surprised if this didn’t become a go-to film for study in high schools and universities. At its core, this is a film about trying to escape from the present reality, all the while trying to let go of the past; I’m sure there are at least a few people who can see some truth in that.

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