Directed by: Alexander Payne
Premise: An elderly man (Bruce Dern) receives a mass mailing sweepstakes scam and insists that that he has won a fortune. In an effort to humor his father, the old man’s son (Will Forte) takes him on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.
What Works: Nebraska was directed by Alexander Payne and he is a filmmaker who often mixes dark comedy with a sense of humanity. This is a film about an elderly man who convinces himself that he is a million dollar prize winner when it is obvious to everyone that his “prize” is actually a fraud. In lesser hands this story could quite easily become contemptuous or farcical and although it has cynical and absurd moments, the movie is at its core a sensitive story about the disappointments of life. Nebraska was shot in black and white, which appears grey on the screen, and many sequences include shots that juxtapose the characters against the flat Midwestern landscape. The mix of a washed out color pallet with the quietly harsh setting recalls movies like The Last Picture Show and it works for this picture by providing an appropriately bleak setting for the story. There is a lot working in Nebraska’s favor but if this film is defined by anything it is the sense of authenticity. When it isn’t on the road, the movie is frequently set in taverns and domestic spaces and the way the filmmakers stage and photograph the scenes has a sometimes uncomfortable familiarity to it. This filmmakers gets at truths that are sometimes unflattering and many of those truths are festering just below the surface of the action. The performances of this film bring that out in a way that is honest but without overstating it. Bruce Dern plays the prize-obsessed father and Dern is terrific in this film. This is a character who could be portrayed as stupid or senile but Dern brings a lot of subtly to the role; careful viewers will realize that the old man does not really believe he is a winner but has convinced himself of it because it is all he has to hope for. Dern is partnered with June Squibb, cast as his tempestuous wife, and her harshness befits the tone of the movie but it also gives way to moments of quiet tenderness. Will Forte is cast as the middle aged son, and Forte has a tough role; he does not get the colorful lines of Dern or Squibb and he frequently carries the emotional and thematic weight of the film. Like the movie he is in, Forte is understated and earnest and those qualities make him and the picture watchable even as they suffer through one indignity after another.
What Doesn’t: Like the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne is a filmmaker whose stories often take place in rural areas of middle America and his films sometimes exhibit a derisive regard for the characters. Nebraska is one of those films; many of its characters are awful people who come off either harsh or stupid. But Nebraska should not be disregarded because of that. One of the goals of art is to hold up a mirror to the audience and make them look at themselves. Sometimes filmmakers and others use this function as an excuse to wallow in misanthropy and excess but in the case of Nebraska the ugliness of it is directly related to the picture’s integrity. However unflattering the characters of Nebraska might be, the film also has a great deal of authenticity to it and some of its most cringe inducing moments are also its most truthful. The only flawed moments of Nebraska are those that are out of step with its melancholy. The story is about a father and son facing existential emptiness and the father tries to fill the hole in his heart with wealth and physical goods. Where the movie goes partly wrong is in its conclusion, in which the son gives the father the objects he’s been craving. The filmmakers mistake the symbol for the meaning, although this is partly corrected in the final moments of the picture. Nebraska ends on a somewhat optimistic note that is inconsistent with the stark and downbeat tone of the rest of the movie but it does bring the film to an agreeable conclusion that will be more satisfactory for general audiences.
Bottom Line: Nebraska is not an ostentatious film but it is one of those rare pictures that is able to shadow play the difficult and ephemeral qualities of life in a way that makes them palatable. As harsh as it may be at times, Nebraska has a great deal of humanity and it is one of Alexander Payne’s best movies.
Episode: #470 (December 22, 2013)