“Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic.”
Not in fact words taken from Alexander Payne’s monochrome father-son road movie, but the words of Samuel Fuller’s brash, loud-mouthed cinematographer Joe in Wim Wenders’ dark, existential drama, “The State of Things”, a film about the arduous, often cold-blooded world of movie-making. Yet these words ring true throughout Payne’s latest stunning, melancholy effort, a tale of life, legacy and existence filtered through a father and his son.
Retired mechanic, and Korean war vet, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter telling him he has won one million dollars from a Mega Sweep Stakes marketing firm in Lincoln, Nebraska, and – despite warnings from his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and wife Kate (June Squibb) that it’s a scam – he is determined to make his way from Montana to Lincoln be it by bus, car or foot. Ardent son David – a recently dumped electronics salesman – agrees to drive him there, if not only to prove to his stubborn elder that he is being conned. On the road there the two stumble through Woody’s hometown for a family reunion, and upon hearing of his supposed, imminent fortune, Woody becomes the talk of this small town. Before long – and despite David’s insistence that the letter is a fraud – family members and old associates come pleading for what they feel Woody owes them from his pending wealth.
It’s there in Woody’s hometown that Payne’s mastery begins to flourish. Nebraska is unique amongst his films in many ways, most effectively in its treatment of Woody and David as lead protagonists, almost as a single entity. Though the film is about Woody, this character – unlike Nicholson’s Schmidt in About Schmidt, or George Clooney’s Matt King in The Descendants – is too closed-off to be a lone protagonist, thus his story is filtered through the inquisitive, affable character of David. This makes the film all the more watchable and engrossing. As David uncovers his father’s past, so does the audience, as he begins to understand his father, we do too, and so the audience and David both come to accept why Woody is the way he is. Unreadable. Gullible. Frustrating. Short-tempered. Stubborn. Alcoholic.
And Bruce Dern is outstanding in Woody’s shoes, his character somehow most affecting whilst in deep, brooding silences. Watch Dern during pivotal, vocal scenes staring into the farthest, darkest corners of bars and other rooms, and he’s still in character. This leaves the audience pondering, as the story unravels, just what he’s brooding on. War? Past grievances? His dead siblings?
And supporting him, Stacy Keach as small town villain Ed Pegram gives a wonderfully manipulative turn, whilst Odenkirk and Forte are solid in balancing both the comedy and drama of the film, and as Woody’s gossiping, stoic wife Squibb is marvellous.
With Nebraska the shroud dividing humour and sadness – always breached by Payne’s characters – is thinner and more fragile than it has ever been. We see this enacted brilliantly in a scene where Woody – with his wife and sons – visit the Grant family burial site, where Squibb’s loud-mouthed Kate distributes cruel, malicious, blackly funny insults to Woody’s dead relations before hiking up her skirt to display to a former suitor what she feels he missed out on.
Bob Nelson’s script is sharp, witty and philosophical at points. A scene where Woody and David take in Mount Rushmore (Woody quipping that it looks incomplete) is hilarious, another where the family visit the dilapidated farm home where Woody was raised is heart-wrenching, will leave you speculating how the walls of your own home will hold up against the brutality and decay of time. Another sequence, which sees David and Ross attempt to display their nerve by stealing an air compressor, is one of the best in the film; at once hysterically funny, wonderfully constructed and suspenseful.
Yet with Nebraska you may question the very moments that make you laugh. It’s a film which feels real, relatable. This isn’t the world of Hollywood fiction, Payne’s world is our world, and in black and white this is made much more poignant and artistic.
Nebraska is also a study of differing generations, the father-son angle highlighting the fundamental differences between Woody and David’s generations. Dern’s Woody, a man of so few words, talks of being able to find someone else “to give him shit” in regards to his wife, whilst his son talks of superficialities such as “being ready” for marriage and of love, and sounds nothing but whiny in doing so.
This being Payne, Nebraska is a patient film, its climaxes – like the film itself – are low-key and numerous, subtle in nature, but doubly satisfying when they arrive. The early mention of Wenders was not unintended either, as Nebraska’s blend of slow-burning, melancholy beauty is perpetual in the seminal German director’s work. And the black and white only adds to this comparison, drawing to mind the aforementioned “The State of Things”, the “Road Movie” trilogy and “Wings of Desire”. And, as always with Payne, Bob Rafelson springs to mind in regards to characters, plot and dialogue.
Now, this review may have begun to sound a little glowing in nature, but sometimes – on rare occasions – you do stumble across a movie where no criticisms spring to mind, no matter how long you muse. There is a name for a movies like that. Great movies. You will laugh, perhaps weep, but only because Nebraska is a beautiful, beautiful film and an outstanding work of art. This is Payne’s best film to date.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Blair is a writer, art school dropout, NCTJ-accredited journalist, and teuchter from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, once accused of having “misanthropic sensibilities” by the Imperial Youth Review. He is a lover of photography, film and literature. Follow him onTwitter: @biglebowski15