Written by Guillermo Troncoso.
Nebraska marks Alexander Payne’s first feature film as director for which he isn’t credited as the screenplay’s writer, or at least co-writer. You couldn’t tell though, the filmmaker’s sensibilities run through the core of this fine piece of Americana. The writer-director of About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants continues a similar sort of thematic path: the path of ageing men searching for meaning.
Bruce Dern has proven himself a fantastic character actor over the years, even earning an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Hal Ashby’s 1978 drama Coming Home, but it’s with Nebraska that the actor demonstrates what he is really capable of. Dern plays Woody Grant, an elderly man who is convinced that he has won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. After making various attempts to walk from his home in Montana to collect the supposed prize in Nebraska, his frustrated son David, played by an impressive Will Forte, decides to entertain his father’s belief by driving him to collect his winnings. On the way, David decides that they should stop by his father’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where he finds more of his father’s history, while the old man’s “friends” begin to pop up upon hearing of the incoming cash.
Woody Grant doesn’t say much, but what he does say speaks volumes about his past and his character. At first, the poor man’s age seems to have withered his mind to the point where he doesn’t seem to notice half of what is going on around him, much to the annoyance of his wife. It’s a great exercise in character development, fleshing out this man’s backstory via his loving son. He’s far from perfect, as we slowly realise the effect that Woody’s alcoholism had on his children, and while there may be no excuse, there may be more to his past than mindless decision-making.
Payne is a director that can find the humour and nostalgia in everyday situations. Almost every conversation has dry wit waiting around the corner, almost every moment is filled with a melancholic sense of what could have been. The film’s tone, while often quietly hilarious and cynical in equal measure, doesn’t quite allow for a completely rewarding experience. The film works in a repetitive sort of format, where characters meet, sit in humorous silence, then deliver some amusingly simple dialogue. Rinse and repeat. Payne is determined that we find the comedy and meaning behind what is not said, rather than what is. It’s arguably a gutsy approach for which he should be applauded, but it doesn’t always quite have the intended effect. Still, while the tone’s steady rhythm falters on occasion, Nebraska has plenty to admire and enjoy.
The screenplay is layered and profound, speaking as much about family and men, as it does about the small-town folk scattered throughout the United States. The fictitious town of Hawthorne, set in Payne’s home state of Nebraska, is an important character in itself. A town caught in a sort of time-loop, where generations replicate the mistakes of their parents and where the minute population is run like an incestuous family of sorts. There’s a tangible sense of time and place, with a colourful array of characters that solidifies the reality of this town and its history.
Payne decided to shoot in black and white, ignoring Paramount’s initial opposition, and the film benefits greatly. The cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael (Walk the Line, Sideways, The Monuments Men), is gorgeous, depicting U.S. highways and towns with a nostalgic, almost historical feel. Arguably, this is one of Payne’s most beautiful-looking films. Every shot is confidently handled, every set meticulously prepared.
Nebraska won’t appeal to everybody. The film’s humour and pace can sometimes leave you feeling slightly out of reach, but when it scores, it’s winning. A charming mix of deadpan wit and nuanced characterisation, Nebraska works hard to win you over, and it ultimately does.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10