Alexander Payne has made a living making movies about families and relationships. He doesn’t direct movies that often but when he does they tend to be pretty good. His latest project, Nebraska, a black and white film that is once again centered around family dynamics, has Oscar type potential and has put veteran actor Bruce Dern back in the spotlight.
A seemingly confused, former alcoholic old man named Woodrow (Dern) is found wandering the streets on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska in the hopes of cashing in on a million dollar prize he thinks he’s won. However, the prize is just a mail-in scam, and despite the ridicule of his wife and son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), his other estranged son David (Will Forte) agrees to take him to Lincoln, in the hopes of simply spending some time together.
The film opens up in all of its black and white glory, with a grim reality that becomes quickly clear. The surroundings are old, dreary and dull. People’s expressions look unhappy or bored, almost zombie like. David, played by Will Forte, usually a comedy specialist, is living a life that is clearly unfulfilled, and old Woodrow is slumping, ragged and covered in unshaven skin. Alexander Payne and his team do a wonderful job with the surroundings, and the cinematography, putting us in just the right place for the story he wants to tell.
Will Forte has not been a regular in these slightly more serious roles, so his casting was interesting and a unique move by Alexander Payne. Forte is great though as David, and he brings a great, depressing sadness to the role but also that natural funniness which adds charm and makes the comic relief effortless. Then Bruce Dern is just fantastic as the wind battered old Woodrow, seeming to be completely out of it at times, but showing those knowing moments of brilliance or signs of his old self that we’ve all seen in our own elder relatives.
The interaction between David and Woodrow are some of the film’s best moments, as we watch them argue their way through there road trip. David is oddly forgiving and caring considering the past he explains he had with his father, and while Woodrow isn’t outwardly remorseful we can see a hint of something deeper in him that he doesn’t care to express. It is this subtlety that makes the film so engaging, as it rarely takes a heavy handed approach to telling it’s audience what it’s characters are thinking. The script just lets the fantastic actors show us with their actions, words and expressions.
There is some great support as well from Bob Odenkirk as David’s more successful brother and June Squibb as their mother, Woodrow’s verbally abusive, long suffering wife. Squibb’s performance is one of the film’s strongest, as she provides some of the films early comic relief in her constant berating of Woodrow, and some of the film’s most powerful moments later as her character begins to show much more depth than initially suggested. Much of the rest of the film’s more blatant humor comes from the more extended family, such as David and Will’s fat, jobless cousins.
The film manages to be extremely funny at times, just by presenting small, real life situations in a slightly more exaggerated style, similar to the way Payne did in his previous film, The Descendants. It does this fairly seamlessly, which creates a wonderfully strange mood that the film exists inside of. Payne does this better than anyone, and it makes you somehow happy to be watching such a depressing scene. The bleak, black and white, gloomy world we see makes each extremely small moment of happiness, triumph or warm interaction all the more happy.
The film isn’t horribly long, and while some will be turned off by the slow pace and the fact that very little happens of note, and not many huge conclusions are drawn. But despite this, for me the film was always engaging. It’s bleakness may also lead to some dislike, especially for those who don’t find Payne’s humor amusing. But for those who do, they’ll likely find the film as warm as I did.
Nebraska is a difficult film to categorize, as it is not a film where much happens. It is a film about family that manages to find magic where you would think none could exist. Small moments like finding lost glasses or sharing a joke with one another seem epic and grand in scale in Woodrow and David’s world, which is a world that many can relate to. Family is a strong and powerful thing, as are regrets, hopes and dreams. Not many films have presented these things in as wonderful and unique a way as Alexander Payne has with Nebraska. While not for everyone, if you’re like me you’ll find this one of the better films this year.