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Film Review


A group of American artists, now known as the Regionalists, worked in the 1920's through the 1940's, but produced their best work during the Depression, and created a very distinctive realist style rooted in the Plains and the Midwest rural areas. Their work is very accessible in terms of understanding the artists' intent, with a very American feel, and has always been popular with the public, although not in favor with art critics until recently. These artists are well known: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Stewart Curry. Their paintings, murals, and prints are highly realist, and in Benton's work, muscular, and seem to be a conscious reaction against impressionism and other European influences. Their subjects are often rural images, especially of agriculture. Their work is so distinctive that it can usually be recognized from across the room. Think Grant Wood's American Gothic, Benton's Wreck of the Ole 97, or Curry's John Brown, and their many great murals in public buildings. These spring right from the American heartland.

So too is a certain style of film, set in the heartland, that depict very American stories. Not Westerns, but films like "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), "The Last Picture Show" (1971), or many of the Coen Brothers' films (not only "Fargo"). In a sense, this is Regionalist cinema. And Alexander Payne's latest film, "Nebraska", is exactly that. Payne, an Omaha, Nebraska native, is known for his well crafted films with their edgy humor: "Election" (1999), "About Schmidt" (2002), "Sideways" (2004), and "The Descendants" (2011). In "Nebraska", Payne tells the story of Woody Grant and his two adult sons, David and Ross. all living in Montana. It is surely no coincidence that Woody's name is the reverse of the famous artist. Woody is an alcoholic with some dementia, grizzled, uncommunicative, and probably depressed as he thinks about his life. Bruce Dern plays Woody, in a sensational best in his career role. Woody is married to Kate (played by a marvelous June Squibb), an acid tongued woman who makes no bones about what she has had to endure married to Woody. Woody has received a form letter from a magazine promotional company announcing that he has won a million dollars if he has certain "sweepstake" numbers. Woody of course focuses on the million dollars and is determined to get to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his money. The film opens with Woody plodding down a highway next to a line of railroad cars. The sky is overcast and there is a small amount of snow remaining. A sheriff stops to see what this old man is doing, soon collects him and calls his son, David. David, the youngest son (beautifully played by Will Forte), is a salesman in a stereo shop, and whose long term girl friend has just left him. Woody is no longer able to drive, so David, after repeatedly trying to convince him that the letter is a scam, decides to drive his father to Lincoln to show him that there is no such prize. So the film begins a road trip across four states to reach Lincoln, and journeys back into Woody's past. And that journey is the essence of the film.

Payne shows us a man confronting mortality, who has had a surprising past, all unbeknownst to his sons. The fragments of information that his sons discover begin to paint a different picture of their father than they had imagined. Payne also reveals dying small towns on the high plains, with their residents mostly much older, and looking as weathered as the buildings. There is a great deal of humor here, much of it dark, but also a loving look at a culture that is vanishing. Not all of that culture is good, with its share of greedy, mean, and narrow minded people. But that same town has their opposites, those that are genuine, generous, and big hearted, and they all are here. Payne is a master at black humor. The scenes of the men watching TV are funny yet sad, and his scenes in the cemetery are worth the entire price of the film. Kate relates the often sad history while reading each stone. You will never forget Kate's: "This is what he could have had if he didn't always think of wheat". But overall there is poignancy and regret. The soundtrack is haunting as well.

Payne has chosen to shoot in black and white, which gives it a very Depression Era (but not depressing) look. The power of black and white, especially with the landscapes, is evident here. His cinematography is beautiful, whether it's the long road shots of the panorama of grasslands, cattle, and rolling hills, or the close ups of the towns and their people. So many of the faces could have come right out of a Walker Evan's photograph. Some of their stories are revealed, almost in passing, and many are moving. These are people that have endured through hardship and bad times, yet still have hope. It's to Payne's credit that he can make this world come so alive in just 115 minutes. This is Payne's most accomplished film, and will likely garner a number of Academy nominations. "Nebraska" might sound like a depressing story, but it is not. It is sweet (but definitely not maudlin), poignant and haunting. I loved this film. "Nebraska" it is a truly great work and easily makes it onto my ten best films list. Just opened at the Embarcadero.

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