Modern black and white films like Nebraska are often stark and brutal, depressing right from start to finish. Schindler’s List, La Haine and Control all deal with sad subjects and the black and white photography give them a simultaneous sense of being in the past and also of the hopelessness of the characters’ situations.
Nebraska is an achingly sad semi-comedy starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte about a son and his aging father who travel across the country to collect a million dollar prize that the son knows certainly doesn’t exist. Dern is the booze-addled elderly father Woody Grant who believes everything he reads and won’t stop until he has collected his prize from the company in Lincoln who named him a ‘winner’. Forte (best known for gurning through MacGruber) is his son David who decides to drive him from Montana even though the winnings are an obvious scam.
Along the way, the father and son bond like never before. David learns more and more about his father as they stop off in the areas where Woody grew up. They meet estranged family, old friends and old flames as they pass through forgotten towns of America, filled with vultures and phonies. Everyone is quick to be Woody’s best friend when they learn of his potential winnings and even quicker to dump him and dismiss him when they learn of the scam.
With typical detachment, director Alexander Payne creates incredibly genuine characters from Dern’s downtrodden Woody to his know-it-all nagging wife to David himself; a good son who could do with the escape as much as his father. It is a depressing trudge through a cast of characters who are all too believable. The main warmth comes from the central relationship between Woody and David and though they are joined briefly by David’s mother and brother on their journey, it all comes down to David’s determination to make his father happy, no matter how difficult that is.
There is no sentimental, melodramatic button pushing. The film simply hobbles along at the pace of Woody’s mumbling and stumbling. Forte is an incredibly welcome presence, both as respite from all the doddery old timers but also as the only thing that can come between Woody and his opportunistic family and old friends. Stacy Keach is particularly memorable as a man determined to get some money out of Woody and the closest thing the film has to a villain. Close behind in the asshole stakes are brothers Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) who would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressingly despicable.
Nebraska is a film that seems fed up with the world. Woody is a washed up old fool who had a hard life and was once a good man. There are hints at what turned him to alcoholism but this is left under explored. While we get odd glimpses of humanity with some pleasant characters littering the film, they are mostly lost beneath the sad scumbags who try to swindle old Woody. It is fortunate then that the character of David is unerringly good; a very welcome respite from the bleak outlook of the rest of the film. With a melancholy score from Mark Orton, stark cinematography from Phedon Papamichael and some heartbreaking performances, Nebraska is a winner; even if Woody isn’t.
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