Friday, October 11, 2013

A Country for Old Men: <i>All is Lost</i> and <i>Nebraska</i> at the New York Film Festival

Posted By on Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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Nebraska movie Alexander Payne Bruce Dern Will Forte black and white

Payne has been kicking around Bob Nelson's extremely Payne-y screenplay for the past 10 years, reluctant to follow Sideways with another road movie. But Nebraska is much more of a hometown-return movie than a real road-trip picture; Woody and David wind up stopping for a weekend in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where David was born. They meet up with family, wander around ("Let's see if I know anyone in here" is one of the more elaborate plans the taciturn Woody makes), and both encourage and deflect talk of Woody's supposed financial reward. Dern makes a surprisingly complex old coot: a man who growls and grouses but also appears defeated by his modest life. Forte, known for his sketch-comedy commitment, nicely underplays the son threatened by the specter of a similarly average life.

If you haven't yet guessed, Payne is back into territory—the Midwest, specifically—where he'll be accused of condescension, for any director must not make comedic hay out of anyone but the richest or most powerful, and if he does, film critics—friends to the common man, champions of the underdog, righter of wrongs—will complain about it. But like Dern's irascibility, Payne's treatment of small-town Midwest has a sneaky variety: there are negative caricatures, yes (David's pair of dirtbag cousins have little dimension—and are also hilarious, fixated primarily on what kinds of cars people drive and how long it takes them to get places), but there are also disarmingly sweet tertiary characters all over the place, and some haunting images, like the field of elderly faces and plaid shirts watching a football game—together, but not particularly as a family.

Nebraska isn't as satirical (or, for my money, as moving) as Election or About Schmidt, but it does approximate their ratio of deadpan comedy to heartbreaking drama; Sideways and The Descendants were warmer movies that also felt a little easy in the end. Payne's new movie, shot in starkly beautiful, desolate black-and-white, feels less rigidly designed to offer a sliver of redemption, even if that's exactly what it's fixing to do. If the subtext in All Is Lost concerns an older man struggling against death as embodied by nature and (per some early bits of voiceover) attempting to somehow right his life's disappointments, Nebraska confronts those disappointments both casually (sputtery as he is, Woody isn't raging against his lack of fortune; he'd just like his million dollars, please) and more directly (disappointment is everywhere). Some of the directness comes courtesy of June Squibb, hilarious as Woody's wife Kate, who will gossip and complain about every single person she knows a single thing about. Squibb somehow makes this quality endearing, rather than suffocating, and Payne clearly loves her for it. Maybe old-age disappointment isn't such a bummer after all.
Lionsgate will release All is Lost on October 18. Paramount Vantage will release Nebraska on November 15.

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