(2013 - Director: Alexander Payne Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte)
I could start by talking about how Alexander Payne’s newest film, Nebraska, is, yet again, a masterful addition to his growing library of classics. I could talk about the peculiar casting and how Bruce Dern and Will Forte are deserving of all the accolades that come with their leading performances. I could talk about the writing, or the music choices, or what have you…but this story is personal.
As a native Nebraskan and self-proclaimed “Nebraska filmmaker” I look up to Alexander Payne. Yes, I’ve met the man and chit chatted with him before. He was nothing but genuine in my brief time with him. Payne grew up in Omaha and has since made four feature films in his home state, (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska). After winning Oscars for writing both Sideways and The Descendants, it’s easy to call him Nebraska’s golden child for film. With the smaller population of Nebraska and lack of films that get made here, the state has embraced him. Which is saying a lot considering his films tend to be more edgy and independent and the state leans more toward the conservative side. But he’s an honest filmmaker. He’s not flashy or pioneering. He makes challenging, complex, universal films about characters in tune with their surroundings and each other. Sounds Nebraskan to me.
Enter Nebraska. It’s a look into the definition of “hard-working Midwesterner”, an aging population, and what it means to understand generations of small town men who don’t know how to open up. I’m going to assume a lot of people will watch this film and think Payne is making a mockery of small town people in Nebraska. The movie has its fair share of funny scenes. For comedy purposes, he highlights some less than appealing aspects of rural life on the plains. We see an aging rural town (most of which was shot in the hometown of several relatives of mine) full of bars because there’s “not much else to do anymore.” People get unusually excited when a “local celebrity” is in town and getting a picture in the town newspaper is considered a big deal. Small talk usually consists of what kinds of cars you own and how long it took you to drive from point A to point B.
But one needs to put these things in context. Every scene and moment in this film is purposeful for Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) path to redemption. As a delusional, elderly man hell bent on traveling from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska because a piece of mail says he won a million dollars, Woody’s literally running from his life. But, with his son, David (Forte), he ends up running right back into his past. Meanwhile, David, having grown up neglected by his alcoholic father, learns more about his father in two days than he has his entire life. There’s history in these small towns. There’s centuries of hard working men and women and the complexity of life on the plains isn’t one that should be glossed over.
In a lot of ways, this movie is about David growing up. David has spent his entire life looking at his parents in a certain light. Maybe his parents kept secrets from him and his brother for a reason. Maybe David never tried to understand where his Dad came from and why he is why he is. Maybe his mother treats his dad that way because she shows her love by being protective. Too often we look at old men/women, and in this case a drunk old man, and assume they are simply the way they are because of the alcohol or because of their age. Nebraska is a film about discovery. It may be the most understated tale of triumph I’ve seen in film. It's a simpler movie about simple people, but the ending has just as much weight as any dramatic thriller.
I knew these characters. I saw far too many reflections of relatives and a lifestyle I grew up knowing and still see today. The Catholic/Lutheran jokes are all too real, and the watching football in silence rings true. Watching Woody and David drive right by the theatre I was sitting in watching the movie was a bit surreal. It’s obvious this film’s writer, Bob Nelson, and Payne cared about authenticity and honoring a culture that was personal for them. But let’s be clear, Payne creates a world here. It’s not meant to realistically portray life in this small town. The way it’s shot, the characters that interact with Woody, the bars they visit, it’s all done to service the story. It's a movie for good riddance. There’s a reason this film doesn’t highlight a lot of the positive aspects of this lifestyle and that’s because, with Woody’s history, there isn’t much to be envied. Nebraska’s state slogan, “The Good Life" doesn't apply to Woody's.
But let’s talk about what Payne does with this film. First and foremost the film is shot in beautiful black-and-white. “Black-and-white felt right for the movie's austere aesthetic,” he says. But what does black-and-white do to a modern audience? It transports us in time. Maybe to comprehend what an aging main character is going through in a small town void of any glitz? It also strips us of color. For a lot of older men, life is about right and wrong as Ed Pegram so devilishly lectures in the movie. There’s not a whole lot of gray in this movie thematically. People’s intentions seem to be pretty straightforward. It’s the communication breakdown that keeps this movie from becoming dull. The shot design is simple, many times scenes shot in one or two angles. It harkens back to Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, both thematically and stylistically.
The music tends to irk me though. Mark Orton composed this music, but it was impossible for me to notice that Orton used almost every song from his previous soundtrack for Sweet Land, also a favorite of mine. I’m guessing they banked on anyone hardly noticing since Sweet Land wasn’t a national release. Don’t get me wrong, the music is applied appropriately here, and there are some different tracks, but anytime a composer recycles songs it’s a little disappointing.
Nebraska is full of layered characters. That’s what makes it fun. On the outside it looks like a bore, but it will live as one of the year’s best and a landmark in Payne’s career. It’s a very interesting movie. It helps define a generation and culture of misunderstood people. It’s more funny than dramatic, but the film is full of gravity and the ending is full of love.