If you have ever driven across this country of ours, you might have noted how each state can be defined by its own unique color palette, each beautiful in its own way.
By Noah Gittell
If you have ever driven across this country of ours, you might have noted how each state can be defined by its own unique color palette, each beautiful in its own way. One of the few exceptions is Nebraska, which seems almost entirely brown. But that’s not how Alexander Payne sees it. The celebrated director, who hails from Omaha, has made several vivid, colorful films about his home state, but his newest – simply titled “Nebraska” – is the first to be shot entirely in black and white. The monochrome feels appropriate for the bland rural landscape, but it also frames his small, deeply felt story of life in the quiet Midwest as something classical, profound, and even beautiful.
As the film begins, Woody (Bruce Dern) has reached an age in which he is increasingly confused by the world. After receiving a misleading sweepstakes notice in the mail, he believes he has won a million dollars. His very understanding son, Dave (former “Saturday Night Live” star Will Forte), agrees to drive him from his home in Billings, Montana, to Nebraska to attempt to claim his winnings. Of course, Dave – and everyone else around him – knows that Woody hasn’t won, but he is willing to indulge his father one last little vacation before his mind crumbles and his overbearing wife (June Squibb) puts him in a home.
On their way to Lincoln, the father and son make an extended pit stop at the former’s birthplace, a rural town of a thousand or so like so many others in the Midwest. After a few comic diversions — Payne has a lot of fun ribbing the rubes in his home state – Dave gradually uncovers a few secrets from his father’s past. It’s nothing too scandalous, at least not by national standards: a teenage sweetheart, an affair that once had him considering leaving his family, and post-traumatic stress from being shot down in the Korean War. It is simply the pain of a life led in a place that teaches you to hide your emotional troubles.
Payne deserves credit for reaching deeper into his characters (and, probably, his own life) to create such a satisfying tale, but it is hard to imagine him pulling it off with anyone but Dern as Woody. The performance was recognized as the best at Cannes this year, and it’s easy to see why. Known for a series of boisterous, talkative characters in films of the 1970s, Dern has basically disappeared from film for the last decade, and he emerges here as a shell of his older self. Woody may be a man of few words, but his tattered, still face and broken gait speak volumes. Without his sweepstakes winnings to look forward to, we get the sense that he might crumble and die. He is a man both there and not there.
But “Nebraska” is also supported by a pair of very effective character actors. June Squibb did not start acting in movies until she was in her fifties (“Scent of a Woman” is her first credited screen role), but she nearly steals the movie right out from under Dern. Her character grows the most in our eyes: from comically overbearing wife to proud protector of her family. It is the kind of performance that should win awards.
Forte, on the other hand, gives a much quieter performance, a contrast from the absurdly lewd comic role he is known for. He doesn’t quite create a complete character here, and while there are indications that a better actor could have done more, Forte’s performance is right for the movie, as it effectively supports Dern and Squibb.
All in all, “Nebraska” is the most emotionally rich film Payne has made yet and, in some ways, a summation of his career. His first two films – “Citizen Ruth” and “Election” – were political satires set in his home state. Since then, he has told more human stories – “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and “The Descendants” – which brought him to increasingly faraway lands: Colorado, California, and Hawaii, respectively. Now, much like his lead character, he has come full circle. “Nebraska” is the story of an aging man and his rural hometown, each standing on their last legs, forgotten by their country, but with plenty of life left in them.
My Rating: See it in the theater