MANILA, Philippines – As far as premises go, Nebraska runs the risk of being lumped alongside the growing litter basket of indie roadtrip dramas. But the indissoluble mix of sharp direction, empathic performances and a finely tuned screenplay, elevates Nebraska away from the crowd of cross-country excursions. Nebraska isn’t so much a road trip movie about moving forward than it is about going back.
In this case, time has finally caught up to Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). Years of alcohol abuse has left him addled and almost despised by his own family. His only begrudging ally is his son David (Will Forte), who puts up with Woody’s antics for no other reason than a misplaced sense of obligation.
“The guy needs something to live for,” David candidly says about his dad.
But when Woody receives a letter notifying him of his million dollar sweepstakes winnings, he is determined to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to finally cash in. Although none of his family members believe Woody, David decides to drive him there himself. It’s an 800-mile stretch between their hometown in Montana to their promised prize. But in the tradition of effective roadtrip cinema, Nebraska is more than just a collection of miles and pit stops.
Finding Beauty in the Ordinary
Director Alexander Payne is known for his ability to expertly wring insight out of the commonplace. But while films like Sideways and About Schmidt highlight tragedy in the ordinary, Nebraska goes further by delving deeper into the mundane than any of his previous efforts. There is nothing particularly special about Woody and David Grant. That they are so ordinary makes them especially universal. But outside of Bob Nelson’s outstanding screenplay, its Nebraska’s lack of big name Hollywood stars that ultimately grounds it in reality.
Like Payne’s previous works, Nebraska sidesteps cheap sentimentality and platitudes. While the irreconcilable tension between Woody and his son David is obvious, it doesn’t combust in artificial melodrama. David carefully tiptoes around his father with the kind of observant honesty that has come to define Payne’s storytelling. But despite David’s intentional pacifism, the performances of Dern and Forte convey a deep sense of pain and longing.
Shot in stunning black and white, there is a peculiar timelessness to Nebraska’s aesthetic. Through anamorphic lenses, the film is transformed into a picturesque time capsule of old America, like a collection of postcards from a bygone era. In the context of Nebraska’s narrative, Pheno Papamichael’s cinematography goes beyond mere stylistics by evoking a resonant melancholy. The film’s colorless elegance only highlights Woody’s own drab life, but at the same time, helps distill his story to its bare essentials.
Beautiful, Simple and Poignant
During one of Nebraska’s more poignant moments, Woody returns to his childhood home. The house is mostly bare, its wood rotting and its paint peeling from years of neglect. Woody hovers from room to room recalling mostly bitter memories of his family. While Woody does well to hide the gravity of his recollections, it’s obvious that there is a deep seeded pain buried deep underneath his leathery skin.
“It’s just a bunch of old wood and some weeds,” Woody says, describing the open stretch of farm land before him. But he could’ve just as easily been describing himself. We realize that Woody, despite his obvious lack of lucidity, is still profoundly aware of his own glaring imperfections.
And though Woody may be at the epicenter of this cross country tale of self-discovery, it is his son David that becomes the conduit of our experience. It is through his eyes that we bear witness to Woody’s unraveling. We travel back in time with David as he slowly uncovers the life behind his father’s seemingly hollow eyes. Like David, our outlook towards Woody changes from frustration, to that of pity to, ultimately, respect. In turn, this is the real journey that Alexander Payne takes us on.
Nebraska may not carry the same raw impact of his previous work, and may not do well to satiate long-time fans of Payne’s remarkable filmography. But it is the kind of film that will undoubtedly reveal its genius with age. Like Woody, Nebraska offers far more layers than its simple premise lets on. And the result, very much like the black and white landscapes that line up Nebraska’s Midwestern country side, is beautiful.
Watch the trailer here:
Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.
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