The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, January 30, 2014


There are certain movies out there that are just hard not to appreciate. You don't have to like it, don't have to come away with a new appreciation for film. You just have to appreciate it. Appreciate a style, a story, a character, a storytelling technique, just something. I'd like to put 2013's Nebraska in that category, but with an exception. I very much liked it, even if I'm still processing and/or digesting it.

An old man in Billings, Montana who's health problems are starting to wear on him, his health, his mind and his family, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is on a mission. He's received notice in the mail that he's won $1 million dollars, and he intends to go pick it Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody keeps leaving the house, beginning to walk to Lincoln, picked up every time and brought back home. His son, David (Will Forte), is going through his own personal struggles, at home and at work, a 30-something midlife crisis of sorts. With his mother, Kate (June Squibb), nagging him to do something, David agrees to take Woody on a road trip to Lincoln to "pick up his winnings," basically calling his mother's bluff. He isn't quite sure what to expect, only knowing that his aging father has become quite the handful to take care of. What does he hope to achieve, knowing there is no million dollar treasure at the end of the road?

From director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt) and screenplay writer Bob Nelson, 'Nebraska' piled up the Oscar nominations, the Academy Awards about a month away, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. I'll be curious to see if this film picks up any wins because it definitely deserves the wins. This is a movie about story above all else. There are no distractions, no special effects, no sex/explosions/violence, just a story about family. The score from composer Mark Orton is a soft, folksy, even soothing score that is underplayed, never overpowering the story and characters. It's so straightforward that it plays almost like a documentary, a look into the Grant family after years of alcoholism, arguments, disagreements and all the trappings that come with being a family, for good and bad.

Where to start with the whole acting thing? With a part that De Niro, Hackman, Duvall and Nicholson were all considered for, Bruce Dern nails the part as Woody Grant, a Korean War vet, an alcoholic who doesn't think drinking beer makes him an alcoholic, a quiet man of few words, and as we learn, he has a past full of generosity with a desire to help and so much more. He's also struggling with some health issues. Woody can't hear too well, seems to drift at times and wants nothing more than to go get his million dollars. Why? He wants a new truck (he can't drive) and an air compressor (he doesn't paint anymore). Like all the performances here, nothing feels forced. It's very natural. His hair disheveled, his beard needing a trim, his clothes hanging on him a bit. Dern nails the part from the word 'go.' I don't know if he'll win the Best Actor Oscar, his second nomination including a Supporting nod for Coming Home, but it is a perfectly played part. It's human, flawed, authentic, like being 

There isn't a weak performance in the whole movie. As my buddy Steve said, the straight man never gets the accolades, but I think Will Forte deserves more buzz for his performance here. He is the straight man, the regular guy among all the kookiness. He's struggling a bit in his mid 30s, dealing with all the drama from his own relationship/break-up, his low-paying retail job, and a less than close relationship with his father, still holding some resentment for his childhood. When his father continues to bring up the sweepstakes winnings in Lincoln, David agrees to go with, hoping to spend some time with his father, but also help him feel like he's got a reason to live. The father-son dynamic is an essential ingredient here, Dern and Forte making it look easy. And then there's June Squibb as Kate, Woody's wife who feels ignored over the years as everyone worries about Woody. This was such a crazy, off the wall character, absolutely no filter as she talks about friends, family, acquaintances, anything and everything, usually knowing the dirt on anyone and everything. Quite the family for sure.

That ain't enough, is it?!? No! There's so much more. Stacy Keach makes quite an impression as Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody's who is glad to see his old buddy but with his own motivation. Mary Louise Wilson and Rance Howard play David's aunt and uncle still living in the town Woody grew up in, Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone) their sons (David's cousins) who are a tad suspicious of Uncle Woody's winnings. Also look for Bob Odenkirk as Ross, David's older brother who's a bit more successful in his career, but is still close with David. There are too many other bit parts to mention. We meet a person here, a couple here, an old friend there, some congratulating Woody, others just glad to see him. These are appearances no longer than a minute or two for the most part, but like everything else, they feel natural, giving 'Nebraska' that additional sense of realism.

In bringing Nelson's script to life, director Payne made an interesting stylistic choice. He filmed his movie (clocking in at 110 minutes, leisurely played in an episodic story but never dull) in black and white, not color. It reminded me of 1971's The Last Picture Show and 1973's Paper Moon, also filmed in black and white even though color shooting is readily available. The black and white shooting gives it a retro, throwback look, like we're watching a movie from the early 1960s, maybe even a John Ford-esque movie from the 1940s. Even the opening credits are brutally straightforward, white letters on a black screen. It's hard to describe why the black and white works. It just does. Like so many other aspects of the movie, it helps strip away anything extra or unnecessary. And just on the visual level, it makes the story more appealing, like individual shots are Ansel Adams pictures. Don't make me explain it, but it works. Credit to Payne for trying it because if the style choice didn't work out, his movie was in trouble.

A couple hours after watching the movie, I'm sitting here thinking if Payne's movie had a specific message, something it wanted to tell us as an audience. What did I come up with? Nothing. I don't think there is one message to take away, and that is intended as a compliment. As cheesy as this may sound, I think it's a movie about small-town America, about tough times with the economy, about growing old, about appreciating family even when it's damn near impossible to do so. Payne shoots his movie with a respect for those country roads, those small, isolated towns dotting the map, the rolling farm land, all providing a great backdrop for the family-oriented story. An incredibly easy movie to recommend. Go out and see this one, dramatic, uncomfortable, funny, and most importantly authentic.

Nebraska (2013): *** 1/2 /****

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