What do you do when you've lived your life and have nothing to look forward to? That seems to be the underlying question of Alexander Payne's latest film "Nebraska". In this dramedy, a man in his twilight years tackles this dilemma by engaging with an illusion of future wealth. The events of this film then, are a look into his journey to attain this prize.
This central figure is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man living in Montana who one day gets the surprise of his life. He has received a letter in the mail that claims he has won $1 million in a magazine sweepstakes. Enticed by his good fortune, he decides to venture to Nebraska to collect his winnings. Realizing the scam, his wife and sons attempt to dissuade him from going, but as is the wont of old men (especially alcoholic ones with symptoms of Alzheimer's), he refuses to listen. Woody will stop at nothing, even if it means walking the whole way. Realizing the futility of trying to change his mind, the younger son David (Will Forte) decides to accompany him for a road trip.
When Alexander Payne announced his ideas for his next film, I must admit that I wasn't all that excited. Even as a fan of his work, the concept just didn't seem that interesting on paper. For starters, the black and white cinematography sounded like an unnecessary gimmick. However, this turned out to be a false assumption as it actually served a purpose. The look of the film is cozily nostalgic, like a genuine throwback to a brilliant school of cinematography that was being swept aside when color film was set to completely take over. It particularly reminded me of films like "The Last Picture Show", perfectly capturing the stagnation of America's backwater towns.
The visuals fit nicely with the tone of the film, alternately warm and solemn with very dry humour. It's quite literally a "black and white" setting, with little flavour to spice it up. For the viewer though, that subtle humour is always present. Coupled with the fine editing, it goes to show that there is sometimes not much difference between comedy and drama. In this case, it's all about the timing. The characters may not realize they are being funny, but even their silences were comedic gold.
Although it's essentially a comedy, there's also a great dramatic backbone to the film. One of the other false assumptions I made about the film was that it would be a familiar story about the characters' futures. When one thinks of road trip movies, it's usually prominently about reinvention or some sort of character growth (e.g. "Thelma and Louise"). It's fascinating then, that much of this film concerns itself more with the past and present. As Woody's caretaker, the movie is as much about David's experience as it is about his father. Along the way, he learns more about his father's history with friends and family, giving him a deeper understanding of the man. The story eventually reveals itself to be primarily about the bond between a father and his son. Though they've been estranged, you can just sense the unspoken love between the two, thanks to the fine performances of Bruce Dern and Will Forte.
As you can tell, I was quite taken with this script. Even when I felt that it needed a more active forward momentum, there was no denying that this was a tremendous screenwriting debut for Bob Nelson. The film has some superb lines of dialogue but even more remarkable is the strong grasp on tone and theme. His script never explicitly explains whether Woody is purposely delusional, naive or suffering from impaired reasoning. What's more important is that he has loved ones who are always there to lean on. Of course, the film knowingly sets up its protagonists for disappointment and the constant threat of death. Yet despite this, it amusingly and poignantly celebrates this precious moment with the endearing members of the Grant family (even when they're being stubborn or foul-mouthed). If this film is based on a real person, then Bob Nelson gave that man a beautiful, graceful tribute.
"Nebraska" picked up a healthy set of Oscar nods on nomination morning. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. It's unlikely to be a frontrunner in any of those categories, but it's certainly deserving of all these accolades. Perhaps Nelson or Dern could spring a surprise, but I'm more inclined to think that the team behind this film is just happy to be invited to the party.