Director: Alexander Payne Writer: Bob Nelson Actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk Runtime: 115 min Rating: PG
Many films glory in spectacle. Movies full of special effects and wild plotlines fill the cinema, and when done well, they can offer a thrilling and highly entertaining movie-going experience. Every once in a while, however, a film comes along that is striking in its simplicity. Alexander Payne’s black-and-white Nebraska is quiet, straightforward, and unassuming, yet this film charms easily by presenting the funny and often bittersweet realities of the everyday. It is for this reason that Nebraska stands out in this year’s field of massive Best Picture Oscar nominees.
When Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a notice in the mail informing him that he has won a million dollars, he takes it literally. Determined to claim his prize, the aging alcoholic sets out from Montana to Nebraska on foot, only to be stopped by his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife Kate (June Squibb). In an effort to spend more time with his father, kind-hearted David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska, knowing full well that the prize is a hoax. The road trip soon becomes a family adventure, and along the way they meet up with scheming relatives and old friends. David constantly attempts to become closer to his father and brother, and this doomed trip may be just what he needs as he learns about Woody’s turbulent past and works with Ross to achieve their goals.
Payne’s decision to film in black-and-white as opposed to the colour that now sets industry standards was apparently not an easy one, as he met with much studio resistance along the way. The black-and-white filming, however, is ultimately a major part of what makes this film so special. Here is a film that aims to remove all spectacle from its strategy. Everything in this film is low-key, from the plot, to the actors and their dialogue, to the filming and sound techniques. There is no need for bright colour to represent this simple story and this world, and without it, an audience is allowed to focus on other aspects of the film instead. Also, the black-and-white images on screen appear markedly different from the colourful world that a viewer sees through their own eyes every day, so the realm presented feels distinctly like that of a story. This technique is crucial here, since all other aspects of this world feels so familiar that an audience may feel as if they are actually watching a story of their own life.
As befitting the film, the acting performances are straightforward, yet that is not to say that they do not demonstrate an immense amount of talent. Dern perfectly embodies a stubborn and determined old man without allowing much in the way of sentimental reprieve; in one scene, when David asks Woody if he loved his mother when they married, Woody answers with confusion, “It never came up.” He also has a penchant for taking everything literally, from figures of speech to the hoax contest prize. Here is an individual whom nearly all can recognize, and that is why he creates so much humour. As the family travels, David learns more and more about his father, and although Dern presents an enigmatic character, his true brilliance is revealed as we learn what is actually inside of him.
For his part, it is clear that the sweet and kind David truly loves and cares for his father, who does not appear to return any of this affection. Forte, who got his start as a comedic improv actor on SNL, may play this role completely straight, yet he still possesses a sharp comedic timing that allows him to deliver non-funny lines in a very amusing manner. It is the truth behind his words that causes one to laugh, as they could easily see themselves saying the identical thing in his position. Finally, note must be made of Squibb’s priceless turn as the matriarch Kate, whose every line is full of wit and personality and who steals every scene within which she appears. In a relatively even film, Squibb is a shining gem and a very special actress.
Nebraska is an evenly paced and simple yet enchanting film wherein not much happens in the way of plot, but much happens in the way of film. The charm found here is that of the everyday: people, places, and situations that we can recognize from our own lives, but at which we are now allowed to chuckle, and the small triumph at the end is perfectly befitting of the overall tone. The lack of colour and overall filming style are reminiscent of a work from an earlier time, yet this film can still be appreciated today, as its theme of the importance of family is timeless. At the screening I attended, the film’s gentle humour had the audience howling in a manner rarely experienced even in large-scale comedic films. Nebraska is a gem, and hopefully its Oscar nomination will allow it some of the public attention that it well deserves.