Written by Films

Nebraska and Pioneer

As the London Film Festival gets into gear, I’ve been trying to catch a few films before heading to Salford and the Radio Festival.

Nebraska is the new film from Alexander Payne, whose breakout film was Election, but who has also made About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. I’ve not seen all his work, but did love both Election and Sideways. Payne is himself a native of Nebraska, but this film, unusually for him, was not self-penned.

The film is a road movie – in many ways a classic of the genre. Will Forte plays David Grant, a man with a life not going anywhere fast. He sells home theatre set-ups in Billings, Montana. He lives in the same town as his brother Ross, and his parents Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate (June Squibb). But his father is exhibiting early signs of dementia and the opening shot finds him walking along the hard shoulder of a highway before being picked up by a friendly policeman. He’s had a prize draw leaflet through the mail, and believes that it has made him a millionaire.

His sons and wife explain that it’s just a marketing exercise to drive magazine subscriptions, but he’s determined to head to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the company is based, to collect his winnings.

Eventually David agrees, and they head out on a trip – notably stopping in Woody’s old home town not far off the route. Unfortunately, Woody is letting it be known everywhere he goes, that he is indeed a millionaire.

This is a gentle comedy of families – of a son’s relationship with his father, and of extended family friendships. The film happens at a stately place, and the beauty of states like Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska itself are beautifully rendered in black and white. Payne said in a Q&A afterwards that he’d fought quite a battle to shoot in black and white, and it had meant that he’d had to work to a smaller budget than he’d have had otherwise. But the fight was worth it. It’s a thing of beauty.

And this is a funny film. There are some terrific lines, and a couple of wonderful set pieces. In particular June Squibb gets a lot of laughs at a cemetery of all places, as she lays into the true characters of some of the people now resting there (And did I spot a “Payne” headstone in that cemetery? I was too nervous to ask in the Q&A).

Payne has also used a mixture of non-professional actors alongside stalwarts like Bruce Dern, who won at Cannes for this performance. A couple of imbecilic cousins who think mostly about how long it has taken Woody and David to drive 850 miles. And some of Woody’s elderly friends from his home-town. They feel real because they are real. Payne explained that he used some unconventional techniques to recruit people to his film targeting local newspapers, and advertising on really small local radio stations listened to by farmers.

The film opens properly in a couple of months, and is an absolute treat.

Pioneer is a seventies conspiracy thriller in the classic mode. Well it would be, had it actually been made in the seventies. But it’s certainly set in that decade.

The story is based on true events surrounding the discovery by Norway of North Sea oil, and their need to learn new diving techniques to build a pipeline to bring it back onshore. There was a need for divers to work at depths of between 300m and 500m, and that meant learning more about the mix of gas they had to breathe at those kinds of depths to work safely.

Petter works with his brother Knut as divers, alongside an American diving company whose scientists have developed new techniques to allow work to be carried out at those depths. But on a test dive, there’s an accident and Knut dies. What unfolds after that is every bit the conspiracy thriller that you might expect. There are cover ups and uncertainties about who is telling the truth and who is lying.

Director Erik Skjoldbj√¶rg also made the Norwegian original version of Insomnia – the only other of his films that I’ve seen. But strangely there are some shared traits between this film and that earlier work. In Insomnia, a character is slowly being driven mad by his failure to get enough sleep in the perpetual daylight of summer in the Arctic. Here, there’s a similar claustrophobia at work, both literally within the confinement of the diving bells and decompression chambers that they have to spend so much time in, as well as in the way the film is shot and the possibility that something rather more permanent has happened to some of the divers. The camera never moves far from Petter’s (Aksel Hennie) face.

The mood is kept in place with nicely done detail, and some very subtle CGI work to present a sometimes ethereal quality to the underwater footage. In a Q&A afterwards Skjoldbj√¶rg said that they tried to film as much of the movie as possible for real, and that some of the water that they shot in was in an Icelandic lake where the water comes from a glacier which is then filtered through sand. The result is some of the clearest waters you’ve ever seen.

A very interesting piece that will get a wider release next year.