The transitional space of the open road appears to be the setting most conducive to good storytelling for director, Alexander Payne. He gave us a disheveled Jack Nicholson on a mission to travel across the US to sabotage his daughter’s approaching wedding in About Schmidt (2002), a heartbroken Paul Giamatti taking a wine connoisseur’s tour around the vineyards of California in Sideways (2004) and now he gives us a boozy and befuddled Bruce Dern on a road-trip to collect scam prize money in Nebraska. Let’s not bother mentioning any quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson about life being a journey, not a destination, agreed? Good.
Nebraska begins with a wide-reaching, study-in-perspective shot focused on the man of the hour, Woody Grant (Dern) ambling towards us with a character-defining wobbly and bow-legged gait. Therein lie the two focus points of the film – Woody, and the American Midwest landscape. Payne’s curiosity with the enchanting banality of the Midwest is constantly referred to throughout the film. The director delights in interrupting the narrative in order to show us signs for scout halls, churches, taverns, local sporting teams and town populations, highlighting their distinct unglamorous-ness and very basic charm.
Wispy-haired and prickly-chinned Woody has just received a million dollar sweepstakes in the mail and is doggedly determined to make his way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings, even if that means hoofing it all the way. This is much to the dismay of Woody’s fed-up, straight-talking wife Kate (June Squibb) and their exasperated sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Agreeing that Woody’s general confusion and tendency to wander off have gone too far, Kate and Ross want Woody in a home. David, on the other hand, comes around and sees a road-trip to Nebraska as a welcome opportunity to spend some time with his old man, believing there to be no harm in entertaining Woody’s fantasy for a few days.
Father and son set off on their adventure, making plans to stop in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne on the way. Visiting family and old friends brings to light significant life events, regrets and unburied hatchets of Woody’s past. A careless word about the winnings quickly makes Woody the talk of the town and greed begins to rear its ugly head, with various family and friends keen to settle supposed ‘debts’ Woody has with them. The most persistent moocher of them all is Woody’s old business partner, the cruel and insufferable Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).
Shot in frosty black and white by Phedon Papamichael with a deliberately grainy tone, Nebraska sucks you in to the simultaneously picturesque and plain Midwest landscape, pulls a stool out for you at the bar and lets you watch as the locals filter in and out. The chiaroscuro of black cows against snowy white flatlands is visually striking and contrasts perfectly with the muddled grey spectrum of a collection of plaid-shirted gentlemen, positioned in semi-circular fashion around a loungeroom television with drowsy eyes transfixed and beer in hand, watching the game.
Not only does Nebraska look great, but it sounds great too. The score, by Mark Orton, is all plucking guitars and lilting violins, coloured by the addition of trumpets and accordions, collectively keeping a wonderful steady walking rhythm. Catchy and honest, happy but tempered with a certain pathos, Orton’s score enhances the black and white imagery, the tone and the narrative of the film perfectly.
Atmosphere and visuals aside, the performances of Nebraska are its crowning glory. Dern is faultless as Woody, able to express so much in screwed up facial expressions, puppy-dog eyes, that bow-legged walk and befuddled shrugs for a character that is of so few words. Squibb steals every scene she’s in with her unabashed and inappropriate honesty, and her cheeky stories of youthful debauchery with numerous would-be suitors. Forte gives a strong performance in a more serious role than the SNL actor may be used to, as the disheartened and exhausted but loving son, David.
Nebraska is a film that hits the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to representing an older family and the mundanity of a family’s day-to-day dealings. There is a joyful humour and an omnipresent pathos in Nebraska as it deals with ideas about growing old, memories and regrets, family tensions, and the notion of having something to live for, however not once does the film fall victim to the lure of sentimentality. It is simply honest and unashamedly plain, and that’s what makes it so refreshingly relatable. A beautifully-made, sweet film, more than worthy of its numerous accolades.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Duration: 115 minutes
Rating: M – Coarse language and sexual references.
Nebraska opens nationally in Australia today.