If you only see one black and white movie this year centering on a 70 year old drunk with dementia driving across the American Midwest with his son, that movie should be Nebraska. Admittedly your options in this category may be fairly limited, but don’t let that devalue the recommendation – there are few features out there now with as much heart, honesty and genuine laughs as the new movie from director Alexander Payne.
Based on an original screenplay by Bob Nelson, the film tells the story of an aging, alcoholic man named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who receives a sweepstakes notification in the mail telling him that he may have won a $1 million prize. Despite warnings that the letter is just a hoax from both his sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife (June Squibb), Woody is convinced that he has become a millionaire and is willing to walk all the way to Nebraska from his Montana home in order to pick up his supposed winnings. Fearing for his father’s safety and knowing that he won’t be able to convince him that the contest is a fraud, David opts to drive his father to Nebraska so that he can learn the truth – and in the process the son discovers a side to his dad that he never saw before.
Similar to material we’ve seen from Payne before, Nebraska wonderfully straddles the distinctive line between comedy and drama, with an impressive balance of tone on both sides. The entire movie is peppered with strange, awkward little moments between characters that will have audiences laughing out loud, from David having a debate with two hillbilly cousins about how long it takes to drive from Montana to Nebraska to Woody complaining that Mt. Rushmore looks incomplete and lazy. At the same time, though, the movie can immediately have you going from chuckling to being concerned about the welfare of the main characters and contemplating what it means to get old and the idea of never being able to go home again. Each half of the story never lessens the other, and instead they work together to create an incredibly fulfilling movie-going experience.
Aesthetically, the film is almost a perfect contrast to Payne’s last feature, 2011’s The Descendants. In his previous effort the director got to capture the lush landscapes and incredible colors that exist in Hawaii, but Nebraska is filmed in stark black and white and possesses its own kind of special beauty. As any road movie should be, the new film is flush with amazing, sweeping countryside photography, but more than just showing us the setting the direction and camera work also helps the audience see deeper into the characters. Regular close-ups of the aging Dern alone tell us everything we need to know about Woody, the actor able to communicate degrees of reflection, pain and regret with single expressions while the camera focuses on the contours and wrinkles of his face.
Bringing to life a emotionally complex and interesting character, Dern delivers the stand-out performance of Nebraska. There are many facets to Woody Grant, both relatable and unlikable, and Dern finds every moment. The character’s selfishness, stubbornness and bad habits can make you want to just give up on him, but Dern regularly brings him back from the brink, making him empathetic in his weakest moments and hilarious in his strongest. The entire film is filled with great turns, as Forte brings a wonderful earnestness to David and Squibb delivers some of the best moments, but Dern alone makes the movie worth the price of admission.
There is a lot packed in to the story of Nebraska, the film hitting on themes ranging from father-son relationships to homecomings to growing old, but it’s all deftly packaged together in a warm, emotionally honest, beautifully-shot package. It can't match the heft of Payne titles like Sideways and The Descendants, but the filmmaker has once again proven that few can make funny, captivating, character-driven dramedies quite on the level that he can.