Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (UK); January 24th, 2014 (US)
Genre: Adventure; Drama
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Alexander Payne truly has a knack for relaying the road story on screen. You need more than an echelon of soul, characters whose individual hearts collectively beat in time with the narrative, and a narrative that quips comically, evolves raucously and affirms genuinely. In Sideways, he created a cinematic Everest, a pinnacle that will require something pretty spectacular to reach. And although Nebraska — Payne’s latest venture into the genre that sees characters finding their way around town before finding themselves — doesn’t quite reach the Sideways summit, it’s still a comforting, humorous and reminiscing ride.
Absolutely dead-cert he’s stumbled upon a one million dollar sweepstakes letter, getting to Lincoln, Nebraska is the first, last and only thing on Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) torpedoing mind. If it weren’t for highway patrol, he’d have walked there. His end goal momentarily scuppered by the confines of a police station and a sigh-fully approaching son, Woody mentally prepares a case for action. Because in his eyes, there’s a mound of cash crying out to him at the end of a Nebraskan road. Son David (Will Forte) believes the letter is a scam, and initially denounces Woody’s nonsensical intentions. However, after a number of persistence-driven incidents, David agrees to chauffeur his father towards the elder’s prescribed destination; probably not out of curiosity, rather, in order to spend time with his ageing old man.
From its elegant cinematography to a perfectly poised story, Nebraska evokes a sense of accomplishment and craftsmanship. Of course, the road-trip mantra will always centre on character study, and it’s no different here. However to not acknowledge the technical prowess on display would be doing the film a disservice. The black-and-white scape works both as a visual appeasement and as a narrative cog, as it represents not only the blunt tone, but also Woody’s depreciating mind and somewhat selfish outlook. In composing a curtain of sound, Mark Orton infuses proceedings with a Wild West twang, harking connotations of the primitive western ‘every man for themselves’ adage. Technically, the film is better than proficient. It is wholly engaging.
Having communicated the industrial superlatives, I ought to focus on the film as a depiction of characters, because without doubt Nebraska is about people and family and relationships. Those, and the subsequent pile of complex baggage associated with such humanistic tendencies. Although Woody isn’t the most amiable chap — his monetary determination prevails above all else — the viewer still sympathises with him to the point where you are subliminally rooting for the lead to walk away with a heap of cash, if only to see him smile. Bruce Dern embodies the retired Woody in all his stout manliness (“I served my country, I paid my taxes”), a portrayal that in many other hands would sway towards generic, yet Dern emits realism. But he’s also frail and his exuberance is quenched before it really gets going, demanding many a refuelling tavern trip.
Will Forte is the caring son David, who stands by his father through thick and thin. Forte must act as a sufficient bumper against all of Woody’s grouchy impulses, a challenging task if there ever was. The duo are essentially a two-man act, strained as a pairing but valiant against any external threat (much like Miles and Jack in Sideways). Enter June Squibb as mother Kate, the experienced firecracker of the family, whose hilarious opening statement sets the tone for her appearance: “You dumb cluck!” The withered status of Kate and Woody’s relationship is prevalent throughout, but it’s a natural abrasion brought on through years of being together, rather than simply a clash of personalities. Squibb impeccably channels her character’s outspoken demeanour into one of protection over Woody.
Bob Nelson’s screenplay is terrific, and Alexander Payne coats an affirming lesson with crude comedy. As father and son settle down at a family gathering alongside a ramshackle troupe of wordless Woodys and ditsy Davids, we watch that familiar social awkwardness at its most humorous. Cousins Cole and Bart insist on mundane car conversations, but at least someone is trying to cover over the cracks of silence. “Cole here did some jail”… maybe silence was the way to go after all. And it’s that tonal take-no-prisoners style that the film thrives on. Yet, there is a dramatic strand running throughout, one that takes its subject matter seriously. Woody is old. His senses are dwindling; he walks along motorways and unwittingly unveils his perceived monetary gain to strangers and enemies. This melancholic exercise on advancing years and losing oneself is relatable — everybody gets old, and many of us have spent time with elderly loved ones. Whilst Woody’s millionaire claims are momentarily amusing, they’re also sad in reflection as we see judgement fail him. At one point, you question Woody’s actual intentions: to chase a false dream, or to live and relive a reminiscent present? For David, the road-trip is a touching venture of discovery about the wholesome life endured by his father, a man you don’t get the impression David knows all that well, despite their familial ties.
Nebraska is another successful excursion for its director. Suitable in its simplicity and subtle in its sensitivity, the film is spearheaded by three admirably relatable performances. At the end of it all, Payne reflects on trust, on bonding, and on seizing the moment. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is, to quote Woody himself, “Pretty good”.