[Originally published March 18, 2014]
In this era of modern cinema—namely, with the arrival and ubiquity of color film—black and white film has enjoyed a considerable boost in popularity. It has come to signify an awareness of and appreciation for the glorified days of early cinema—there was, obviously, a time when every film was shot this way. However, such films can come off as contrived and pretentious, even unoriginal—something that any poor sap with a Monochrome setting on his video camera can create. Alexander Payne’s latest opus Nebraska, however, was clearly filmed this way for a reason.
The film opens on a series of wide shots showing a grizzled geezer in a black jacket hobbling determinedly alongside a treacherous Montana freeway. As it turns out, this old fellow is Korean War veteran Woody Grant (played by prolific Western star Bruce Dern). A fraudulent piece of publisher’s junk mail has led the boozy, emotionally distant Woody to believe he has won a million dollars, and he intends to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (hence, the title) to claim his earnings—all much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and their grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David eventually decides to drive his father to Lincoln. En route to their destination, they organize a family reunion in Woody’s tiny, eccentric hometown of Hawthorne. There, they encounter plenty of would-be well-wishers eager to cash in on Woody’s newfound wealth—including his shady former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).
With Nebraska, Mr. Payne (About Schmidt, The Descendants, et al) has once again brought a compelling, heartbreaking, and gorgeous story to the screen, thanks in large part to a well-chosen and able-bodied cast.
Throughout a career spanning half a century, the 77-year-old Dern has either been tragically underutilized or typecast as a psychopathic villain. Now, at long last, he seems to have arrived at a role deserving of the masterful craftsmanship and acting range. In this touching, emotionally raw performance—by far the best of his career—Dern is the film’s tragic hero. With his unkempt hair and thick stubble; his gravelly, wobbly whisper of a voice; and the eternal look of bewilderment in his gaunt face, Woody Grant is a man contending with his own mortality and the mistakes of his past, but with a fading grip on the present. We see him come to terms with a long history of alcohol abuse and a less-than-idyllic family dynamic, all while he struggles to ultimately regain his will to live—he intends, for instance, to buy a brand new truck with his prize money “just to have it.”
Heavy drama touched with light wit has become a Payne trademark, and Dern’s performance brings this to the forefront. We find ourselves, as viewers, affected in opposing ways by the saga of this confused old man and his worried family. We despair alongside Woody when his ex-bar buddies belittle him for believing in the sweepstakes hoax, though all the while we knew he had it coming. We get plenty of snickers out of his forlorn antics, but are still heartbroken by his slow descent into senility.
Not to be overlooked is former About Schmidt scene-stealer Squibb, whose Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska showcases tenacity and guts that rival those of actresses a third her age (she’s 85, thank you very much). While we delight in Kate’s colorful, merciless commentary on hers and Woody’s younger days in Hawthorne (in one memorable scene, she flashes an ex-lover’s grave to show what he “missed out on”), we also sympathize with her plight as a devoted wife who wants her husband to get on the right track. “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire,” she exclaims upon learning of Woody’s alleged winnings. “He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”
SNL alums Forte and Odenkirk, meanwhile, set their boisterous comedic chops aside for a while and counter the frenzied personalities of Squibb and Dern with a firm grounding in reality. In so doing, both men successfully demonstrate their impressive range as performers.
Now back to the elephant in the room—Payne’s decision to shoot the entire film in black and white, with help from perennial collaborator Phedon Papamichael (The Descendants, Sideways). Granted, it’s commendable that the notion was fully realized, and when it works—which it does, for the most part—it’s brilliant. Yes, monochromatic images of David unsuccessfully attempting to sell a stereo system to a young couple and Nebraskan locals fumbling their way through karaoke tunes are odd and a bit, dare I say, contrived. However, we see the method to Payne’s madness when we encounter stark, sweeping wide shots of the rambling Midwestern landscape through which father and son travel—all augmented by a lovely, sparse, and folk-tinged score from multi-instrumentalist Mark Orton. It’s a stark contrast from the lush Hawaiian backdrop of 2011’s Descendants—a film which, interestingly enough, lost to a silent film throwback, The Artist, for Best Picture that year.
What’s more, this black-and-white world further highlights the nature of its haggard, embattled protagonist. At one point, we close in on Woody, gazing out into a barren field surrounding what remains of his childhood home. “I was gonna be a farmer,” he sighs. “I don’t know what happened.” And in that poignant moment, we feel just as uncertain as he does.
Nebraska has its flaws, but they are minimal in contrast to the end result. It’s a beautiful, brilliantly executed story that explores not only a journey through the Midwest, but the far more rugged journey through human life—a journey which, like it or not, all of us travel together. (8.8/10)
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
DoP: Phedon Papamichael
Black-and-white, 114 mins.
Released by Paramount Vantage (November 15, 2013)