The director as auteur - that time-honoured staple that, thanks to French post-WWII film criticism, spread around the world like a virus - seems to be borne out irreducibly by American director Alexander Payne's follow-up to the very successful The Descendants. Nebraska is a project that Mr. Payne did not write or produce, yet it's not only a piece with his successful oeuvre, it also seems to distill the essence of his drily satirical yet compassionate take on people overwhelmed and disappointed by life. It's a work that bears out the auteurist credo of the director as the true author of the film, while at the same time invoking the genealogy of 1970s American filmmaking - a time where the "inmates had taken over the asylum", so to speak.

     Shot in widescreen black and white, Nebraska is a dead ringer for Peter Bogdanovich's seminal The Last Picture Show and its forlorn farewell to a small town America in its dying throes, about to be swallowed whole by history. Though the time frame (present day rather than the 1960s) and setting (Nebraska instead of Texas) is different, the general mood of disappointment and disillusion is similar in the tale of ageing curmudgeon Woody Grant (a wonderful Bruce Dern) who convinces himself a marketing come-on is in fact a legitimate million-dollar prize and travels all the way from Montana to Nebraska to claim the money. Bob Nelson's road-movie script, attuned to the melancholy desolation of stoical Midwestern lives, morphs imperceptibly into Mr. Payne's quietly desperate, deadpan-witty look at an America that seemed to be left behind by modern society. Woody is accompanied in his trip by his younger son David (Will Forte), who seems as aimless and mousy as his father, the one everyone thinks of as an underperformer.

     In driving his father to Nebraska, David understands better where he is coming from and why he is who he is - thus mirroring the film's own slow blossoming from quirky character study into a work that understands the landscape that originated it and works with it, rather than against it, to place itself in a history and a timeline. It's one hell of a slow-burn, slow-release tour de force where everything falls into its place steadily and inexorably towards a quietly redemptive ending, one where for once blood really is thicker than water (despite all that has gone before). It's also an Alexander Payne film through and through, and one that is very likely to be his best, enriching and expanding on the melancholy, aged palette of his breakthrough work About Schmidt. Nebraska is a little gem waiting to be discovered.

Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael (black & white, widescreen)
Music: Mark Orton
Designer: Dennis Washington
Costumes: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Tent
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa (Paramount Vantage, Bona Fide Productions, in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund, Echo Lake Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 115 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, February 22nd 2014

Nominated for six Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Bruce Dern; Best Supporting Actress - June Squibb; Best Original Screenplay; Best Cinematography)


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