Nebraska – Review

One For The Road

Alexander Payne casts a captivating spell in this heart-wrenching, inspiring exploration of what we’ve lost, what we could’ve had and what we will always have. It’s right on the money.

15, 115 min

*****

N.B. This was also released in the UK in 2013 (as per the last two films I’ve reviewed), only finding French shores in April 2014, and so forms the third part of my ‘Out of Time’ series. It’s the best yet.

‘That’s the way the world works. Not black and white. Extremely grey,’ says Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld in one of this year’s other Oscar contenders, and the same couldn’t be more true of Nebraska, the black-and-white gem with a heart of gold. The latest film from Alexander Payne (whose back catalogue I am now determined to catch up on) centres on ageing alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) of Billings, Montana, who one day finds out that he has supposedly won a million-dollar sweepstake, and must go to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to pick up his winnings. Thus a road movie ensues, with Woody the only one convinced that he has actually won, and most of the rest of his family doing everything to stop him making the 700-mile trip to claim perhaps the only thing left worth living for.

On the side of the naysayers are his long-suffering wife Kate (a brilliantly potty-mouthed June Squibb) and his news anchorman son Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Seemingly the only one devoted or crazy enough to volunteer for this perilous quest is his other son David (Will Forte), and so they set off together on the long road to Lincoln. Forte himself is one of the many strengths of the film, bringing a knowing, dry wit to the role of put-upon son. For most of the runtime he remains a blank slate, impassive of face, as if afraid to show that he actually feels anything, but occasionally the emotions bubble over, and his performance contributes a great deal to the dynamic which is at the heart of everything. Plus there’s one moment that will make you clench your fist like mad.

Father and son’s jaunt off to pastures unknown is perhaps a good thing, because there’s precious little else keeping the characters occupied in this gloomy world. The past appears to be where they’re living in the rural Midwest states, with nothing having changed since what looks like the 1970’s. There is no hint of modernity here, there are no smartphones or iPods, there’s no technology – it’s all taverns, corn fields and lost dreams. The present seems bleached of all colour, leaving the residents of these ghost towns to do the same things over and over again without end, and without hope. And yet, with the help of an old-fashioned soundtrack, Nebraska goes on its forlorn, melancholic way with a determined spring in its step.

In a way, Woody and David are carrying on the tradition of noble hopelessness in their journey to Nebraska – and it was a journey that I was initially reluctant to take (mostly because the film is the very definition of a slow-burner: if it burned any more slowly I think it would go out). However, over time, it worked its charms on me, and all of its little touches built up a rich portrait over a couple of hours, and proved to me that sometimes, the grey hinterlands really are worth venturing to.

And as the film progresses, we get more of a picture of our characters. Woody in particular is a stubborn, inscrutable figure, played in a brilliantly understated fashion by Dern, and the one enigma that Nebraska never truly solves. At times he plays the clueless card, claiming that years of drinking have addled his brain, and at others remembers things with a silent, poignant clarity. He has hundreds of miles on the road to figure himself out, and you get the feeling that by the end, he still might not have told us everything.

The trip proves especially revelatory for David, who ends up finding out little nuggets of his father’s past from people who are complete strangers to him. This is particularly emotional in one case, with a blast from the past sharing a quick-fire but pivotal exchange with Grant Jr. Gradually, a story of a life starts to emerge, and it’s a lot different to what David first expected – proof of the fact that, even when the memories are seemingly set in stone, there’s always a new side of the story to tell.

So Nebraska, eventually, asks the question of whether or not redemption is possible, and also of how much we ever really know anyone (even ourselves). This might seem like heavy going for a film that is already weighed down by being in black-and-white, but here’s the shocker – it’s surprisingly funny. This is due in no small part to Woody’s hilarious wife Kate, so non-PC and laidback for a pensioner that it’s unbelievable. However, there’s also a collaborative family effort involving a long-sought-after object, which steals the show in terms of humour – and it’s too mundane-yet-great to mention here. The ending is truly brilliant, bringing together all the little nuances from earlier on, and all the whispered promises that only come from being part of a family, and proving one very heartening point once and for all.

So though it took me a while to get used to the hue of Payne’s American Midwest, in the end, its portrayal of all the different shades of life, all the roads left untravelled and all the trails we leave behind prevailed upon me. By the end of Nebraska, with its rolling hills and its meandering meaningfulness, I felt as though I wanted to bask in its glorious monochrome sunset forever. But unfortunately, with its perfect parting shot, I found that I’d reached city limits, and it was time to go home. I can tell you one thing, though – this film is a journey everyone should take.

Alex Nicholson

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