Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
Everything about Alexander Payne’s Nebraska feels authentic. You can feel it in the desolate Midwestern towns and their short-spoken residents. You can feel it in the empty, blue-collar roads and in the handful of elders that camp in Main Street’s neighboring bars and steakhouse. You can feel it in the lingering landscapes, the frames of infinite flat- like the picturesque Hawaiian tropical sunsets in his last film The Descendants– that just sit there for you to get acquainted. You can feel it in Payne.
The esteemed director is from Omaha and there is a reverence and love that goes into his portrait of this state, this people, and this tired, dusty life. Payne knows how to capture people and places with such ease because he gets the small things right. He also doesn’t patronize. He makes his subjects characters, which might often be portrayed in other hands as caricatures. The only reason you might feel like some fit into the latter category is because most of their daily lives are so one-dimensional. It’s painfully funny and brutally honest.
Payne begins in Billings, Montana though, where Woody Grant, played intrepidly by Bruce Dern, stubbornly attempts walking to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a million dollar sweepstakes. The prize is a magazine fraud but Woody contains an odd mixture of senility and headstrong persistence to claim it, which means his son David (a solemn Will Forte) must track him down in his Subaru each day and escort him back to his shrewish wife Kate (June Squib). To end the arguing, David drives his dad to Lincoln for some father-son bonding. He knows the million dollars is a gimmick, but wants Woody to pursue something before Kate feverishly puts her husband in a nursing home.
You also get the sense that David wants to make this trip for himself, too. He has just broken up with his girlfriend of two years, works at an electronics store, and his indoor plants are dead. His brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is starting to make it big as the local news station’s anchor and so Nebraska somehow becomes a beacon to escape a lonely existence, to earn some pride en route to collect a scam. You also get the sense David wants to reestablish a relationship with his war-vet father, to heal some buried, drunken home-life wounds. His attempts mostly fall on Woody’s partially deaf ears. “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody.” David must oblige.
An extended pit stop lands them in the fictitious Hawthorne, Nebraska to visit Woody’s hometown and family which he hasn’t seen in over thirty years. He stumbles into his relative’s home and finds his brother and twin nephews oblivious to their arrival. Later, when a larger family gathering is held, everyone- the nephews, the old geezers, and David- sit stupefied by a football game. Their dialogue is comprised of intermittent questions, followed by “What’s?” and “Huh’s?” They don’t turn their heads when they talk, they just bark at each other staring into the silence of the screen. It’s comedy in the saddest sense.
Kate and Ross make the 800-mile trek down for the makeshift reunion. Quickly, news about Woody’s million dollar earnings spreads through the one stoplight town. Family members chip away Woody’s gruff persona and reveal their even more petty natures, demanding they get shares of his prize. Stacy Keach shows up too, Woody’s old work partner, and threatens David to share his eventual loot, cornering him in a restaurant bathroom. Woody is an unwarranted celebrity and Kate can’t stand it. She hates his family and has some kind of ridiculous, unfiltered jab to throw at every member- another punch of unsettling laughs.
The film was shot in color and then drained of it into black and white. It’s a fitting scheme considering the town and its composition of people that feel like they’ve been collecting dust in some old photo album. This little population feels so cut off from society, isolated from outside culture except for the rusted Coors Light window neons and communal television gatherings. Payne is careful not to mock this insular lifestyle though. This is more small-town celebration than condescension.
Woody coasts through all of this without a lot of thought, but there is tenderness in his brusque fathering. It’s refreshing even as it stubbornly waddles along. There isn’t sex- except for when Kate flashes her relatives’ gravestones- and there isn’t violence besides David throwing a nice right. This is just regular life in all of its frustration and patience and love. Sometimes movies make us forget what that is. Lucky we have Payne to remind us.
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)
Dallas Buyers Club on the other hand opens with sex, a man thrusting in a threesome by the bleachers of a Texas rodeo. That man is Matthew McConaughy and he gives a sickening and transformative performance as Ron Woodruff, a skeleton of an electrician and cowboy diagnosed with HIV in 1985. It’s hard to look at him. McConaughy dropped close to fifty pounds but his appearance mimics his life: daily booze-infused cocaine benders in his trailer park neighborhood. The suffering Woodruff endures to shed these vices feels matched in McConaughey’s own weight-loss sacrifice.
There are a lot of things crammed into this film even though it prioritizes Woodruff’s personal journey. Homophobia, the FDA, Pharmaceutical companies, and clinical trials all make their polarizing presence here. As the AIDS epidemic quickly gains traction, the issues escalate locally and nationally. His friends stare at him with disgust when he delivers them the news, unwilling to comprehend a disease pre-labeled for them as a homosexual one. Woodruff fights their bigotry by doing the opposite. He researches his sickness extensively and finds little approved treatments in the U.S., so he goes to Mexico and smuggles drugs that help quell his symptoms. Later he will begin travelling over the globe for medicine.
The primary drug of concern is AZT-at the time still being tested on mice- a drug that kills blood cells. Woodruff’s doctors, most notably a compassionate, level-headed one played by Jennifer Garner, tell him he has 30 days to live. Woodruff outlasts this diagnosis with metaphorical ease, and much more literal abuse. The clinical trials assign infected patients to AZT or placebos, but the timing and ethicality of this process irk Woodruff enough to circumvent the FDA’s regulations.
There is no eating and little drinking in this film. At times it lacks energy if only to match Woodruff’s depleted fumes, running on redemptive empty. Throughout Ron’s series of hospital visits and near overdoses, he meets Rayon (a phenomenal Jared Leto), a transsexual who falls prey to drugs and Ron’s zestful, ambitious spirit to treat others with medicine they might never receive. They open their eponymous medical clinic in a motel together, and crowds of ailing people quickly line the sidewalk.
His fight with FDA is a merry-go-round that wearily slows its spin after drug officers finally grab hold of his “not illegal, simply unapproved” drugs. McConaughy has recently played intimidating figures on screen that have a bite and bark to them- a male dancer in Magic Mike and ruthless hit man in Killer Joe. Here he displays a different kind of intimidation, fighting for life without really living, empathizing instead of ostracizing. For as much as we deify McConaughy’s chiseled figure, there’s no pleasure hidden underneath his loose button downs and aviators here. His body is vacant, just a shriveled vessel to keep moving, fighting, and riding the bull.
Philomena (Stephen Frears)
The story of Philomena Lee is true and saddening. In Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), the story is embellished to make a thought provoking and redemptive movie. But, even though it hits its emotional marks, and stays mostly authentic to its source material, the momentum and tear-jerking climax eludes this odd-couple narrative in a frustrating way.
Judi Dench plays Philomena, an old, sheltered woman described as someone who has consumed “a lifetime’s worth of Reader’s Digest, The Daily Mail, and romance novels.” As a promiscuous teenager, shown in flashback, she had a baby after a feverish sexual encounter at a town fair, prompting her parents to send her to a convent. What could easily become a horror location, the residence housed many pregnant, unwanted teenage girls and its nuns kept them there as penance for their “sin.” The nuns delivered their babies, and shipped them off with American couples ready to adopt. Philomena’s son was abruptly snatched as just a four-year-old and she never saw him again.
Enter Steve Coogan as Martin, a former spin-doctor for England’s Prime Minister now a forced retiree and roaming journalist. He meets Philomena’s daughter and decides to write a human-interest story about her mother’s continuous search to find her lost son that’s been gone for some fifty years. They fly to Washington D.C. and begin their journey together. He is cynical about the process, like his boss, nitpicking hot topic words like “evil” when Philomena refers to the nuns that raised her. His story will go two ways: a happy reunion or a disappointing fruitless search.
But of course, this tale will not wind up so black and white. Dench captivates as someone slightly out of touch with society, but in tune with her faith and Catholic code. She and Coogan find their best moments debating the existence of a higher power, diverging in their methods of reconciliation and what it means to be Catholic, or in Martin’s case, a non-believer. The gravestones of young girls deceased from childbirth and the incessant cover up by nuns beckon a comeuppance that Philomena refuses to deliver.
It’s frustrating to see this negation. Frears though seems drawn to these types of powerful subtleties: looks and small actions that elicit such contempt and meaning. He did it with Helen Mirren in The Queen, most profoundly in the rich rolling hills of England, and Philomena and Martin’s travels across Ireland capture this similar sublime beauty. But sometimes Frears doesn’t give us much credit. When Philomena returns to the convent after many years, he dubs the flashbacks over her traumatic memories. When she looks through the stairwell window as an old woman, we know she’s remembering that awful adoption day long ago. Philomena is a movie that works better with ambiguity instead of handfed responses.