A simply complex, darkly comedic fable by Alexander Payne that is much better than his last movie, The Descendants, mainly because it is so much less self-obsessed and self-smug, but also has a much tighter story-telling and generally better acting. It deserves all the nominations that is has gotten.
Having the film shot in black and white is a very smart choice by Payne. Without colour differentiation, there is no distraction from the story, the acting and the cinematography. But of course, with such a technique all the other aspects must be excellent. Thankfully, with a script written not by Payne but by Bob Nelson, we have a script that is simple in its complexity exploring the paradoxical, and often silent, relationship between father and son, and also illuminating the harsh truth about Greed. And in between all that, there is still space and time for smart, witty, and drily deadpanned moments to liven things up.
Luckily Payne, as a director, is also much better here, with a tidy storytelling finesse and smart camera choices to not only bring out the comedy in certain moments, but also the tenderness and fragility in others. However, sometimes he goes a bit overboard with the cheesiness. But one pet peeve here is the over abundance of in-your-face product placement. So much so that it was rather distracting at times.
3 standout performances here. Bruce Dern is brilliant here in his subtlety. The 2013 Cannes' Film Festival Best Actor winner has the charms and screen magnetism that George Clooney only dreams he has, and his eyes are amazing in its ability to convey emotions. Here is an actor that knows that good acting does not require you to be loud and dramatic/drastic (looking at you here Matthew McConaughey), but it is the simple, quietness that is the most challenging. Like Emmanuelle Riva in Armour, his brilliance will surely be overlooked on Oscar night. Although if trumped by Chwitel Eijofor for 12 Years A Slave it would not be a snub.
Then we have June Squibb, who gets the best lines of the show. Her tough as nail performances belay a gentle affection and allows us to question the relationship that she has with her husband.
Lastly, Will Forte as the wide-eyed lost-son. Forte plays the straight man here and yet with his un-assuming character we come to believe him and understand why he does the things he do. As an audience surrogate he was very effective because we believe this man can exist.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael did a great job here. Filming in black and white is very challenging and yet he balanced the tone, the lighting, the contrast superbly throughout with gorgeous framings of landscapes and wide-angled shots.
Mark Orton did the music for the movie, and he gave the film a very folksy-sounding country score which was appropriate for the tone of the movie, but also aurally it was like the movie: simple but complex.