Bruce Dern lights up the monochrome frame in Alexander Payne’s beautiful road movie
Director: Alexander Payne; Writer: Bob Nelson; Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard; Running time: 115 minutes; Certification: 15
When asked why he made Nebraska in black and white, director Alexander Payne replied, “It left cinema only for commercial reasons – it never left fine-art photography. I can’t have a career as a film director and not make at least one black-and-white picture.” That, for me, is all the validation I need (if any). The question has and will continue to be asked by many; “Why is Nebraska in black and white? What’s the point?” The point is just that. It’s still a perfectly valid form of cinematography that, just like widescreen digital, yields its own unique beauty and style. Payne’s decision to shoot the film in black and white – or rather convert it in post-production – shouldn’t even come into question, but when it does, you have your answer. If that’s not enough, the film answers the questions for him.
From the first moment we’re struck by how beautiful a black and white image can be. It brings something subtly subduing and alluring to the fray, heightening the rustic, comforting effect of the gorgeous Nebraskan landscape. With so much of the film taking place on the road amongst the distant hills and vast plains, we’re treated to a collage of breathtaking images that may very well not have had the same impact in vibrant colour – or at least a very different one. After being so won over by the format, it’s hard to imagine Nebraska playing the same way in colour. It works the way it is. I mean, did we really need It’s A Wonderful Life in colour?
As is so often evident in Payne’s work, there’s a finely judged balance of dark, quirky wit trickling under the surface. What is essentially a character-driven road trip comedy, with the father and son setting off from Montana to Nebraska and bumping into old acquaintances along the way with often hilarious results, the tone is deceptively melancholic throughout. Just in the way The Descendants pulled us in all sorts of directions, making up laugh one minute and cry the next, Nebraska gives us that mandatory chuckle with an exchange between Woody and David before breaking down and looking deep and openly into relationships and past regressions. Such juxtaposing interplay is incredibly hard to pull off, so it’s to writer Bob Nelson’s credit that his first feature works so successfully.
In no small part that’s also down to Payne’s expertise behind camera and his ability to make the absolute best out of a good screenplay and great actors, but even more so it’s down to the magnificence of Bruce Dern. Dern has been fairly quiet on the big screen in recent years – a small cameo in Django Unchained is his most noticed role for some time – but Woody Grant is the role he was meant to play. In a quid pro quo of sorts, his return to glory is down to Nebraska, but Nebraska’s glories lie heavily on him. Every single movement and sound he makes is pitch perfect, like a slickly oiled cog in a functioning machine. Each line is delivered with such genius nonchalance, whether he’s defending his right to drink beer or trying to convince family and friends he’s really a millionaire. There’s no strain on his acting abilities or any particular effort to be impressive; it’s just a modest and completely understated performance that makes the film what it is. He’s deservedly receiving plaudits and wide tips for an Oscar nomination, and it would be an absolute travesty if he didn’t receive it.
Inevitably, the story becomes something more than simply a father and son trying to obtain a million dollars, and really both we and Woody know from the beginning. It’s all just a scam, he hasn’t really won the money – even if there’s a part of him (and us) that wants to believe it. His agenda is emotional; to connect with a family that has grown distant by exhuming his past, before leaving them behind with sodden memories of his alcoholism and apathy. The shift to this reveal is really sweetly done, as if we didn’t know it was coming, and somehow it doesn’t scream with saccharine sentiment to get the job done, which lesser films might. The final act of Woody and David shows the film’s true colours, with its ability to provide the most satisfying conclusion that doesn’t contradict everything that went before – much in the same way as The Way, Way Back did earlier this year.
Nebraska won’t be to everyone’s taste; for some the heavily character-driven structure won’t work dramatically; for others, it might just be the grainy black and white print that puts them off, but there’s so much depth and substance to be found within those grainy characters that it’s hard not to be won over. Great dialogue, characters and dynamics are hard to come by, and so compelling, that nothing else seems to matter.