Article By: Dan Clark
Alexander Payne’s latest film Nebraska is a soothing venture that goes down easy like a gentle folksong. It embodies the personality of its rustic characters with a straightforward approach that is unaware of its own honesty. Bruce Dern’s affecting performance will break your heart while at the same time have you hoping for the impossible. Nebraska may not be the most cinematically complicated movie of the year, but it is one that will warm the soul as it celebrates the simplicity of the American spirit.
Payne’s directorial style has always been able to seamlessly mesh dramatic elements with his subtle sense of humor; finding comedy in the foibles and traits of his characters rather than in witty quips or outlandish situations. Nebraska is one of the best examples of this in recent memory. It all starts with Bruce Dern ,who stars as Woody Grant, a man hard-of-hearing but full of determination. He receives a junk letter stating he won a million dollars, but unlike many of us Woody takes this offer seriously. Not trusting the mail to handle that type of cash and unable to drive he begins to walk to Nebraska to claim his prize.
His family does not share in his optimistic attitude. They attempt to instil in him the realization that it is nothing more than a scam. June Squibb who plays Kate, his self-titled better half, becomes sick and tired of Woody’s stubbornness so she enlists their two sons to knock some sense into their dear old dad. Their youngest son David sees there is no stopping Woody from his quest so he agrees to drive him to Nebraska to put this issue to rest once and for all.
When you look at what makes Nebraska work the first place you have to start is Bruce Dern’s performance. From his disheveled look to his hunched over posture to his brazen delivery Woody is a character that is undoubtedly a result of a harsh lifestyle. He is a man of few words but many faults. While he may have walked through life on a selfish path, you cannot help but route for his plight. His stumbles bring down others around him, yet his dedication to honesty and devotion to helping his fellow-man make it difficult to judge him so harshly.
Woody is at that age that is right on the brink where his senses and memories are slowly fading away. It is that universal tragedy we all fear and all have been effected by in some way. Will Forte, who plays his youngest son David, sees the writing on the wall so he uses this trip to Nebraska as an opportunity to spend some quality time with his father. Forte is not someone who is commonly associated with serious drama, nor is he often used as the straight man. Once you acquire the taste of his performance you can let go any casting baggage he might bring in.
Payne’s decision to shoot this in black and white was an ingenious one. First and foremost it establishes an unmistakable timeless quality. This is very much a reflection of the status of today, but the problems it exemplifies are ones that have been and will always be ongoing. Here we see the devastation that our broken economic status has had on the everyday person. Everywhere you look buildings are closed, windows are boarded up, and the world is left in a status of decay. One person randomly winning a million dollars is such small bright light of hope for an entire town, but in this otherwise darkened world that light shines bright enough for all to see.
Now this is not a somber movie that is designed to tug at the height strings. Any social commentary is slightly placed within to add an extra layer to a gentle story. For the first time since Payne’s Citizen Ruth he did not pen the film’s script. Bob Nelson took that role and it is easy to see what Payne saw in his work. They share similar sensibilities and they design characters that are void of Hollywood fluff. Having the gull to say nothing and letting the audience put the pieces together are signs of quality filmmaking. When large character revelations occur the film allows the actors faces to tell you everything you need to know. It is a script that does not let words get in the way of good story telling.
Some of the greatest moments are when it lives in awkward silences. Anyone who has had experienced those uncomfortable family get-togethers can appreciate seeing a living room of lifeless men blankly staring at a television. Finding conversation is nearly impossible and when it does occurs it is about the most mundane aspects of life, like the length of your travel. You begin to welcome those mundane conversations however, as they are the only things capable of breaking the painful silence.
Mark Orton’s score should also be credited for the effect it had on making this movie work. The score acted as anthem that celebrated the simple. It is a score that focuses on intimacy rather than being an intricate piece of music. In addition the cinematography of Phedon Papamichael imparted a pacifying mood of melancholy, like a cinematic postcard of hard living.
In many ways Nebraska is a movie I probably enjoyed much more than I should. Subtle comedy is right up my alley so seeing a film that revels that style makes me clamor for more. Many of the characters and their mannerisms spoke to me on many personal levels. Somehow this film crafted characters that were ultra-realistic and larger-than-life. Issues are certainly there; a dependence on too many running jokes, like Woody’s lack of hearing and Kate’s desire to share in her past sexual exploits do eventually wear thin. Those issues are so minute in comparison to what is going right. Nebraska is a modest tale of the power of our own humanity. Payne and Nelson use humor in the right ways to avoid any form of melodrama. Nebraska subtly shows what happens when cynicism replaced with unyielding hope.