Published on January 15th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
We think we know the people that we’re surrounded by — friends, loved ones, even parents. But do we really know all the pieces of their history that contribute to what makes them tick on a base level? Do we really even know what makes ourselves tick? Each person’s life is a path they walk down, encountering baggage, good and bad, that makes them the sum of those experiences. And once you know more about a person, does it get harder to judge them? To throw forth a cliché, you’ll know someone better if you ‘walk a mile in their shoes.’ That idea is central in Alexander Payne’s latest film, Nebraska.
Bruce Dern plays a broken down, half-senile old alcoholic that gets one of those stupid sweepstakes letters designed to sell magazines. “We are authorized to pay Woodrow Grant a million dollars!” He refuses (or is unable) to believe it’s not real and keeps putting himself in danger trying to get from his home in Montana to the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. His dutiful son, David (Will Forte), decides to help him, against his family’s wishes and all good sense. But as much as his father was more of a drinker than a raiser of sons, David is compelled. I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say they end up passing through the town where Woody grew up, and the townspeople are thrilled to receive what they think is a prodigal son millionaire, while David meets the ghosts of his father’s past.
First off, the acting in this film is astounding. You’ll hear a lot about Bruce Dern (who grabbed Best Actor at Cannes); he’s sad, funny, but more than that, he is incredibly convincing as a man who is sometimes there, sometimes not, and sometimes pretending not to be. Will Forte is another surprise — who’d have thought MacGruber would give such an understated performance as the put upon son? You can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders and empathize at his inability to do anything real about it. He is a living sigh. And though she’ll be overshadowed by Dern and Forte, June Squibb (playing Woody’s wife/David’s mother) steals scenes like a nimble thespian cat burglar. The acting is a perfect compliment to the script itself — the actors help pull back the layers in the writing, as we dive deeper into each character and what motivates them.
It’s shot in glorious black and white, a visual style as non-indulgent, puritan, and self-denying as the people of the heartland and the characters in the story. But Nebraska is more than forgotten dustbowl towns, stark farmhouses, and cramming into bare living rooms to drink beer, talk cars, and watch football. It also sails the seas of rolling, windswept wheat fields, their golden hues rendered in picturesque black and white contrasts. It shows us the monochrome truth in the nooks and crannies of faces, whether in moments of contemplative misery or hearty, salt-of-the-Earth laughter.
Is the film absolutely perfect? Of course not. There are contrived moments and caricature here and there, like a nighttime robbery that is largely unnecessary and silly. However, these moments of the comedy leaning too far over the rails in the wrong direction are fleeting, and they certainly don’t tip the boat.
I’m sure plenty of writers will note that Nebraska is also about economic recession in America, and it is, but I saw that more as a theme that juxtaposes with its characters — it’s really more about the recession in a person’s soul. Many of the characters, especially Woody Grant, suffer through years of emotional drought and spiritual hardship. It’s also a movie about the cycles of family lineage as David Grant uncovers the ways the past has made his father the man he is, and in turn, how being raised by his father created the person David himself became.
My wife made fun of me the other night for having a list of movies as long as my arm that were all, “one of the best of the year,” from Fruitvale Station to Her. But nuts to my wife — let’s place Nebraska on that list as well.