February 9, 2014


Alexander Payne, 2013
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a marketing letter in the mail informing him that he has one a million dollars and that he has to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings.

Payne's heartfelt picture has a simple plot but is anything but simple. Woody Grant sits on his old beaten up couch, inside of his old beaten up house. The many years of tavern dwelling has even made his body beaten up. His wife Kate (June Squibb) screams at him from the next room, which he (and the neighbors, probably) can hear through the thin walls. You get a sense that she only has one volume in which she speaks, and that's yelling. The bogus piece of paper is not bogus to him. Not because he thinks there's a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln (maybe he does early on). That piece of paper is a ticket out of Billings. That piece of paper has some value to David (Will Forte) as well. Accompanying his father on the trip to Lincoln could be an opportunity to finally bond on some level before it's too late. He sees himself in his father, and is therefore able to humanize him more than hard-shelled brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Plus, it's not like David has much to lose by going on the trip. He's only leaving his empty apartment still filled with memories of the recent breakup and a wilting plant. David and Woody are not just making the trek to Lincoln for a quick pickup. They are taking a road trip down memory lane. Through Woody's past experiences. Woody's forgotten history. They make a pit stop in Hawthorne to visit family, and the town has aged much like Woody himself.

Payne took risks in making this film, and they paid off. Decisions that some other filmmakers may not have made. His decision to shoot the film in black and white was a bold move, and the right one. The absence of color adds a certain charm to the film, a certain honesty. The weathered Knights of Columbus sign on the outskirts of Hawthorne, or the old paint peeling off of Woody's childhood home's walls certainly wouldn't have that same feeling if you were looking at it in full color. Payne's decision to cast Will Forte as the lead paid off as well. He can now join the list of other comedic actors who have successfully made the transition to dramatic roles. The comedy in the film comes at the right moments, serving as a good relief valve. The cousins aren't big talkers, but are sure inquisitive about automobiles, as is the rest of the townspeople of Hawthorne. The family members and townsfolk sitting in front of the television watching football, completely emotionless. If the television is a window to the world, all of the excitement is on the other side of the glass. The more lively behavior comes as Kate shows her lack of a social filter by revealing past sexual experiences as they weave through the headstones of the cemetery.

Like Kate says: "usually someone has to die before the vultures start circling." Someone winning the lottery can bring out the worst in the people around you. But perhaps it brings out their true selves. Woody finally gets a moment in the spotlight after years of being ignored by those around him. He stands before everyone as they clap, congratulating him and it invokes a feeling of someone getting a lifetime achievement award. Perhaps playing into the facade is the right move. Perhaps it's his one last chance at some dignity. Perhaps it's his chance to have the last laugh, and ride off into the sunset. Ending it all on a good note instead of a sour one. Some retribution. In the end, the film is so redeeming even without needing the actual redemption.

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