Nebraska: Sad, Hilarious, and Sweet
Nebraska is the latest project from director Alexander Payne and despite its themes of reflection combined with a plot about a road trip, he surprisingly was not involved with its scripting. The script was penned by Bob Nelson, a man with a pair of interesting and unrelated credentials preceding this movie. Based on Nebraska, I’m certain that you’ll be seeing his name more in years to come.
At its core the film is about the relationship between Woodie Grant (Bruce Dern) and his youngest son David (Will Forte) though Woodie’s relationships with the rest of his family (both immediate and extended) come into play as well. The film follows Woodie’s attempt to claim a million dollars that he has won according to a quite obvious scam letter. Despite his wife and sons continuous attempts to persuade him otherwise, Woodie believes the letter to be real. His belief is attributed to a combination of his own gullibility, kindness, and dementia. David, believing that Woodie is just looking for something to live for in his retirement has, because of his mental illnesses, latched on to this letter. He decides to prove to his father that the letter is not real by taking him from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska.
I will admit that before they set off on their trip, I found the movie to be somewhat slow and the dialogue slightly stilted. Bob Odenkirk and Will Forte especially seemed to be loaded on with lots of lines that simply served to set up the relationships between the characters, their histories, and so on. Perhaps its their roles as straight men that do them a disservice early on but it has to be recognized that these histories had to come out somehow.
Luckily, these early moments are saved largely by Bruce Dern’s astounding performance. Dern is able to perfectly capture Woodie’s nature, creating this character who you’re never quite sure if there’s something wrong with him or if he just simply is a man who’s always been like this. There’s also something to be said for the way the camera often lingers on his simple slow physical movements, creating the sense that Woodie is a man for whom everything, even moving, is hazy.
Woodie’s wife, played by June Squibb, bolsters not only the beginning of the film but its entirety. Squibb probably has the chance to deliver some of the best lines in the entire thing and she never fails to rise to the challenge. Every word has the force of an old woman who has gone far past the point of caring what other people think, if she ever did. She is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud in the theater.
Everything about this movie improves when the film actually reaches its unplanned destination of Hawthorne, Woodie’s hometown. Here we’re introduced to Woodie’s extended family (who have their own eccentricities and absurd histories), the many people who do remember him, and his business partner Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach). Pegram is the closest thing the film might have to a villain, as he’s trying to convince Woodie and David to pay back a loan that may not have ever existed out of Woodie’s winnings, and Keach really plays with this very well. He provides that great combination of charm and sleaze that every small town bully really needs even when they’re pushing sixty.
Nebraska is certainly never fast paced, in fact it can be downright slow at times but this never quite manages to detract from the film. Its length helps you feel the size of the country and the distances that they’re traveling, along with the ability to digest everything that is going on. While the movie will make you laugh out loud many times, there are plenty of parts to it that are sad or reflective, and while you don’t need to tease much to understand what’s going on, it helps to have that time to process. Overall, Nebraska is a film that is surprisingly sweet and touching with moments of comedy and darkness that make it well worth watching.
Despite its Palm d’Or nomination and Dern’s win of best actor at Cannes, I don’t think this will end up in the Oscar rotation. Furthermore, I don’t think this is a movie that is necessarily a must-see in theaters. That all being said, I think in a few months when it comes to streaming services it will begin making the rounds and be welcomed by anyone who watches it.
I don’t really have much I want to say about this movie, since this is a movie that is truly best when you just watch it rather than reading me describe it. More importantly though, I have very few complaints about the film.
The only major thing I really want to talk about is its use of black and white. Whenever a modern film uses black and white it’s a deliberate choice and it’s a deliberate choice that must be evaluated. Why did they do it? and Did they achieve the effect that they were looking for?
The choice was apparently driven in an attempt to not only make the film stand out, which it most certainly does, but also in an attempt to play with the landscapes and the very nature of black-and-white. Landscapes are a major part of this movie; the big flat expanses that surround them, the small towns devoid of people, and the farms that no one seems to be actively tending. These are all a part of this world and help set the stage. The black-and-white look of the movie does lend a certain coldness to the already barren post-harvest/early winter plain states. Beyond that though, there are only one or two scenes where I felt like light and shadow were truly played with, or where any shots were uplifted by the fact that this was being shot in black and white.
However, I must admit that I’m always a little skeptical of such claims and I have a poor eye for technicality. The black and white doesn’t actively hurt the film and it surprisingly doesn’t make it look pretentious as is often the way of things. Of course, the film might not be hurt by this artistic decision because of all of the other decisions they made that were so good.
Everything about the costuming down to the cars the various characters drove was so wonderfully done. The costumes along with the setting and locations really helped to hammer in everything about this colorless world the characters apparently inhabited. The way people talk, the way they move, the way the shots are edited and framed. All of this combines to make a really great movie, that is hard to ignore.
Like I said, the earlier parts are a little shaky but that also brings me back to the only other complaint I have. With the exception of a few shots here or there, the trailer is largely drawn from the first ten or twenty minutes of the film. While this isn’t as annoying as when all of the funniest parts of a movie are in the trailer, or a trailer is cut to make you think the movie is entirely different, but it certainly annoyed me enough that it stuck in my brain.
At the end of the day though, I’m not going to fault the whole movie for it. Nebraska is great and definitely worthwhile.