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Awards Season Catch-up: ‘Nebraska’ (Alexander Payne, 2013)/’Inside Llewyn Davis’ (Coen Bros, 2013)

Another year, another elegiac Alexander Payne road movie, but will I ever tire of them? I’d have thought by now he could slam these things out in his sleep, so it’s to Payne’s credit that each offering has a slightly different flavour, the product perhaps of different writing partnerships and the gradual accumulation of learned experience. He’s maturing with age, as his characters, from Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth to her father in Nebraska, appear to drift back in time toward adolescence. Observing this film in the context of a busy awards season (a pressured release window that doesn’t much help Payne’s gentle projects), I’ve noticed Nebraska falling victim to what we call ‘Rain Man syndrome’, in which the older, showier performance grabs the plaudits whereas the quiet younger part, the real focus of the piece, is bafflingly considered something of a ‘supporting’ role. To ignore Will Forte’s great work is to ignore the real beating heart of this film, the subtle, challenging drama ticking along besides the gruff and amusing Dern. 

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis shares a melancholic soul with Payne’s latest but without its hope or conventional pulse, playing instead as a sixties mood piece of downbeat folk tracks and bleak outlook. In a career built on impeccable soundtrack selection, this is a disc like Todd Haynes I’m Not There that’s crying out for purchase, perhaps even eclipsing the achievements of its excellent accompanying feature. After being denied the lead in that non-Damon Bourne sequel and scrabbling for bit parts in other mixed successes, Oscar Isaac finally crashes through into leading man status, dominating proceedings as he journeys through every scene. Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky meanwhile pop up to cause maximum confusion for fellow fans of HBO’s Girls, and the rest of the cast (Timbersnake, Mulligan et al) continue to demonstrate their inestimable talents in a sharp, albeit sombre work more interested in study of character and mood than traditional plotting or happy endings.

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