Perhaps one day I will do a blog the difference between the greatest film ever versus ones favourite film ever. In short “the greatest” films tend to be large in scope or the important issues they confront though are often dense and lack a certain re-watachable quality (think Schindlers list or Lawrence of Arabia). Conversely, your favourite film may lack the scope or epic quality of the greatest films but are films you can watch over and over again (maybe I don't need to do a post now).
As far as the latter category goes my favourite film is, depending on my mood, 2004's Sideways by Alexander Payne. My affection for this film could (and possibly will) be the focus of another post but its explained, in part, by the fact that it's primary character is a depressed, unsuccessful, wine loving, borderline alcoholic failed writer (possibly don't want to over think that says about me). Given my borderline obsession with Sideways, Payne, perhaps unfairly, has an uphill struggle when it comes to impressing me. The Descendants, though a perfectly decent film, seemed to lack the both the edge and dark humour of Payne's 2004 offering. So, how well does Nebraska meet to my unrealistic demands?
The set up of Nebraska is pretty straight forward. After being found wondering alone on the side of the freeway, Woody (Bruce Dern) explains to his son, David (Will Forte), that he was trying to make his way to Lincoln Nebraska where he can collect a million dollar prize. The prize appears to be a standard scam letter sent by a magazine subscription company. In spite of this, and against the vocal objections of his mother Kate (June Squibb), David agrees to take his father on the 850 mile journey to Lincoln, a journey that takes them through their fictional old home town of “Hawthorne”.
Despite it's simplistic “road trip movie” premise, the film is a deep analysis of familial dysfunction. The core of the story is the father and son relationship. It's clear that at the films opening David doesn't really know his father. This is in part due to the monosyllabic nature of Woody and his alcoholism. Dern's low key performance as Woody, a man possibly loosing it grasp of the real world is complimented perfectly by Forte’s almost constantly exacerbated David. As we follow the pair on this journey, David and the audience are, in essence, taking a trip back into Woody's past. The vehicle for this voyage is film's the well crafted dialogue and we are sparred the crowbarring in of hackneyed flashbacks. Given that Woody is often unwilling or unable to speak for himself, we learn about his past ventures, both good and bad, through the extended cast of characters who populate Hawthorne. Perhaps the most important voice in this journey into Woody's past is the person who knows him best, his wife Kate. Almost the polar opposite to the stoic Woody, Kate basically says, or shouts, the first thing that comes into her head. There is so much pleasure to be had from watching David struggling to cope with a father unwilling communicate and struggle even more with a mother who won't shut up, even when she is talking about all the men, now dead, who wanted to sleep with her (at their gravesides).
David's journey (and I feel it is about David's journey and not Woody's) is not so much about heading towards the probably fictional million dollars but about him discovering that his father is a fully rounded human being with a complex past. Despite uncovering his father glaring flaws, David also discovers that Woody is a generous, passionate and generally decent human being, someone worth fighting for. Ironically, given her vocal criticism of Woody, his biggest defender is his Kate who is blistering in her defence of her husband as the vultures begin to circle around the smell of money. Much has been said about Squibb's performance and I have nothing original to add to the well deserved plaudits1. I have seem some wonderfully affectionate expressions of unconditional love in films before, but you'd be hard pushed to beat Kate's unfiltered rants, whether directed at Woody himself, or those attacking him.
As for the technical aspects of the film, I was at first sceptical at use black and white. In the end however, it works to give the film a timeless quality. Although set firmly in the modern day the film is very much about the past and the monochromatic cinematography is perfect for this.
Going back to my original point of “greatest film versus my favourite film” question, I feel 12 Years a Slave is perhaps 2013 greatest film and deserves the best Motion Picture award at the Oscars (though I am not sure it will win). Nebraska on the other hand is probably my favourite film of 2013. The performances are perfect, the direction flawless and the story telling nature of the dialogue is wonderfully crafted. It is also very funny and painfully heartbreaking in equal measure. I can also see my self watching it over and over again whilst demanding others watch it with me. The big question is for me, and forgive the self indulgent tone of this entire post – Is this film as good as Sideways? The answer is that I don't know and I cannot offer higher praise than that.
1 - I will say, however, that if she doesn't win the best supporting actress gong it will be day light robbery.