Despite the so-so trailer, I went to see Nebraska at this year’s New York Film Festival with high expectations: a new Alexander Payne film, a movie shot in black-and-white, and Dern!
I appreciate Payne’s past efforts, notably The Descendants, and, chiefly, Sideways; they both won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. But I think more than Payne’s consistent growth as a director, it was Bruce Dern (yes, the father of Laura Dern) that most excited me about the film. I’ve enjoyed Dern’s work from Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte; Coming Home; Smile; Family Plot; Silent Running, and—thanks to DVDs and streaming—to his multiple guest appearances on The Big Valley and Gunsmoke. (Just for fun, I suggest watching Darn’s 1983 opening monologue on Saturday Night Live—currently streaming on Netflix—to further understand his misunderstood career). Nebraska exceeded my trailer-muted expectation by systematically engaging my interest, and consistently surprising me on many levels.
With a script by Payne’s fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Nebraska centers on Woody Grant (Dern), a cranky septuagenarian, a husband, a father of two grown men, and an average Midwesterner who’s spent too many years at the bottom of a bottle. Woody walks with an unsteady gate, occasionally shows signs of senility, and is convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. His son David, played by SNL’s Will Forte, grudgingly agrees to humor his father and embark on a road trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim the fictional million dollar prize.
With several films shot in black-and-white this year (notably Frances Ha and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing), 2013 is proving to be quite a year for glorious black-and-white films. Nebraska effectively uses its black-and-white cinematography to focus our attention on the story, to emphasize the wide Midwest landscape, and to add a layer of consistency that cements the film’s many moments of comedy and drama into one balanced visual tone. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shot the film using an anamorphic lens to capture the vastness of Nebraska’s landscape and big skies that, coupled with black-and-white, centers our attention on Midwest details: plowed fields, cold cemeteries, chipped paint on an old decaying house, and the National Geographic-like lines and gray stubble of Bruce Dern’s face—a landscape itself filled with history. While Nebraska was shot in digital format, it has an authentic celluloid look, achieved by using a technique in postproduction that added a layer of film grain. One walks away wondering why more films aren’t shot in black-and-white. The absence of color in Nebraska doesn’t take away from the film’s reality but rather heightens it and directs our attention to the colorful characters and the oddly engaging story. This classic look enhances an early-winter urban environment that most likely wouldn’t have been as attractive in color.
Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival last May, delivers a very un-Dern-like performance. He is effectively understated, controlled, poetically unattractive, unsentimentally touching and funny—even hilarious. Dern’s Woody Grant is a gift that caps a very long and creative career. If it were possible to capture a standing ovation and mold it into gold medal, Dern’s Woody Grant is the gold. Should Dern win the Oscar for Best Actor, it will be for a fine, well-crafted performance, not one of those lifetime achievement Oscars. Another knockout performance is delivered by relatively unknown June Squibb (About Schmidt, also directed by Payne), as Woody’s wife, Kate. She enters the film in a seemingly minor role that one expects to fade as the film progresses. But rather, she returns to surreptitiously capture our attention and nearly runs away with the movie. Kate heightens the film‘s humor by surprising us with one wickedly hilarious line after another. As I’ve not seen About Schmidt, I sat there thinking who is this amazing actress and why have I not seen her before? In a brief, final moment on screen, Squibb gently carves another dimension to her character when she shows her tough-love devotion to Woody, who is in the hospital. You realize that this unrestrained, tell-it-like-it-is, cantankerous wife is devoted to Woody; she’s the reason why he’s made it this far in life. No one else in the world has the strength and experience to tolerate him, which Kate has.
With Nebraska’s nostalgic black-and-white look, restrained yet sharp-edged humor, its timeless theme of father-son relationships, cast and crew have created a melancholy-comic portrait of Middle America that, like its lead actor, should prove to age gracefully.
–John David West