The 58th Cork Film Festival: Nebraska

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The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

Matt Micucci begins his coverage of the 58th Cork Film Festival with a report from the festival’s opening film, Nebraska by Alexander Payne.

On Saturday night the 58th Cork Film Festival got off to a great start with its opening film, Nebraska by Alexander Payne – a remarkable intimate portrayal that is as harrowing as it is humorous. Genuinely touching, nostalgic and very funny, this surely figures among the filmmaker’s best works to date.

Throughout his celebrated career, Payne has characteristically been concerned with troubled and seemingly deeply unsatisfied individuals who have problems coming to terms with their decadent realities –  a fruit of a monotonous and largely unfulfilling life. Even in The Descendants, set among the wealthier class of the paradisiacal Hawaii, Matt King, played by a George Clooney at his best, famously stated where he thought paradise could go. One of Payne’s greatest assets, drawing from his acclaimed talent from screenwriting, has been this delicacy of making the silences and the unspoken words between the characters as relevant, if not more relevant, than the actual words.

This quality of Payne’s must have come from his own birthplace. Payne was born in Nebraska and set most of his previous films there from Citizen Ruth to About Schmidt. It is a place renowned for its overall quietness. Just think about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album – one of the most introvert and soul-searching albums in the history of modern music. Cinematically speaking, the setting is identifiable by its grey skies, its small towns and this solemn and meditative silence and dullness that is neither frowned upon nor celebrated by its inhabitants. At some point in the film, the editor of a local newspaper openly admits to lead character David that people pick up drinking there because there is not much else to do.

This film is the story of David Grant (Will Forte), one of many men with a dull and thankless job, who is afraid to commit to a serious relationship and marry his girlfriend. She, in the meantime, has upped and left him, frustrated by his lack of will to commit. As if his life wasn’t frustrating enough, his father Woody (Bruce Dern) constantly concerns him and the rest of his family with his stubborn behaviour. An ageing old man, showing the signs of vulnerability from a history of alcoholism, he not only fully believes that he has won a million dollars upon receiving a marketing scam letter. He is also determined to get to Lincoln and collect his money himself, even if he has to get there on foot.

Despite all this, David is still quiet and almost content on the outside. He is very sympathetic to his father’s situation. While he understands the concern his runaways down the highway cause, he eventually gives into his father’s wishes and agrees to take him to Lincoln himself. Though he knows well that there won’t be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, he is quite happy to be spending time with his father and looks after him out of kindness even after an accident leads them to having to stop in his old hometown at an aunt’s house. It is there that Woody rekindles with his past.

There is a lot that ties the character of Woody to the character played by Jack Nicholson from About Schmidt. They are both soft spoken and both quietly submitted to people taking advantage of them. As well as that, both were subjected to constant psychological beatings that visibly left them in a state of near alienation. The major difference between the two films lies in the journey itself. In Nicholson’s film, Warren Schmidt, on his way to his estranged daughter’s wedding, embarked on a journey of self-discovery. The journey in Nebraska is not Woody’s – it’s David’s. David is the one who almost unexpectedly discovers a side to his father he had never really known. This also gives him an opportunity to give his father an image that goes beyond the negative memories of boozing and overall carelessness; a fact that is particularly powerful when considering that he knows that his father has little time left to live. That is why he keeps the journey up and often even shares his excitement of an illusion. Perhaps this to him too is an illusion, but it is as welcome as his father’s one for his hopelessly coveted million.

This intimate portrayal is made even deeper by the performances. Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame is on his way to becoming one of the best newcomers in American cinema. He shows great versatility in his portrayal of emotional devotion and good-natured loyalty. On top of that, Bruce Dern gives the best performance of his whole career as Woody. It is a performance of restraint, a performance of tragedy and comedy combined. All his lines are delivered with such finesse that they could at once be tragic and laugh-out-loud hilarious. The same can be said about his fish-eyed stares, often lost in his own world, hardly paying attention to what is going on around him. The physicality of his performance is also praiseworthy – his goofy but determined walk recalls slapstick comedians but also takes us back to the seriousness of his character’s physical and mental weaknesses, in a film where we, as the audience, are constantly conflicted by the tragicomedy of realism.

The support cast is equally great. There are times when June Squibb as Woody’s nagging wife Kate steals the show. It’s quite entertaining to see her giving out about her husband right to his face, yet even more rewarding to see those occasional moments when she puts her moaning aside and shows those brief, yet sweet, moments of tenderness to not only her husband but also David and his older brother (Bob Odenkirk). This reveals Kate as the strong woman of the house, perhaps the strongest character in the whole film but also certainly the undisputed leader of the pack. On that note, it is amusing to note her stints into ‘potty mouth’ territory with hilariously rude remarks that reveal a little trend in modern cinema after Judi Dench’s performance in Philomena.

Nostalgia is one of the prevailing moods of this film. This is not only due to the great screenplay but also through a wonderful use of black and white cinematography. This adds a sense of melancholia and poetry in shots of lonely diners, empty taverns or the wide use of landscape shots. It recalls the small town melodrama of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Payne’s film could well have spun out of that generation and this could be its unofficial Nebraska-based sequel set many times in the future. But perhaps more than that, it stands as a modernisation of Italian neo-realism. In particular, Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thief. There are countless ways in which the father-son relationships in the two movies match up – however, the biggest comparison lies once again in the hopeless journey. At the end of the day, David would love to get his dad that million, just like young Bruno would love to find his father’s bicycle in De Sica’s work.

Despite its melancholia and underlying sadness, Nebraska is quite optimistic. It’s a high spirited drama, almost more a touching comedy than a drama in itself. Its positive outlook on life is universally crowd pleasing, yet never in an obvious way. Some of Payne’s previous works have certainly been met with more anticipation and more clamour, yet it is also this essential lack of vulgar media buzz surrounding the film that heightens the power of the experience. In fact, premature commotion would have drastically affected the quiet nature of Nebraska and altered its identity.

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