After the commendable detour that was 2011’s The Descendants, Nebraska finds Alexander Payne getting back to the bittersweet road movies he does best. It’s been almost a decade since Sideways, and it’s fascinating to see how he’s evolved as a director. Nebraska is certainly one of the director’s finest works to date, and that’s in large part because it feels like one of his most personal. Gone are the stylistic flourishes and nutty humorous interludes; instead, Nebraska expertly balances comedy and drama to tell a simple but incredibly potent story of fatherhood, life, death and time’s cruel passage. It’s sweet, sad and completely indelible.
Payne’s choice to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white can’t mask the film’s colorful cast of characters, nor its warm heart. Most impressive is Bruce Dern, finally in a role worthy of his considerable talents. Dern is all kinds of wonderful as the curmudgeonly Woody Grant, who begins an epic journey to Lincoln, Nebraska, when he becomes convinced that he’s been awarded a $1 million sweepstakes prize. With a shock of messy white hair and a slightly agape mouth, Woody is already in the final chapter of his life and prone to slipping into daydreams, sometimes in mid-sentence. It’s hard to watch Woody sometimes, given how clear it is that the end is nigh. Still, Dern gives him an almost childlike stubbornness that anyone with older relatives will recognize. It’s an intensely physical performance, with Dern shuffling through the film like a stiff puppet with cut strings, still standing but only just. The actor also perfectly plays Woody’s lifelong alcoholism, allowing him to come alive whenever a bottle is near. “Get a drink with your old man – be somebody!” he commands his hapless son (Will Forte) in a rare moment of enthusiasm.
Forte, as Woody’s son David, who warms up to the road trip as an opportunity to spend some time with his old man, is a real discovery, soulful and sincere. The actor is known best for his comedic roles (dare I speak MacGruber‘s name in a review of a film as overwhelmingly superior as Nebraska?), but he demonstrates such deep emotional pathos here that he’ll surely be a favorite amongst indie filmmakers for years to come. The back-and-forth between Dern and Forte is as endearing as it is often hilarious and moving. The two performers give even the most mundane of tasks, like finding a missing pair of dentures, surprising dramatic heft. A stand-out is surely when the two reflect on Mount Rushmore. “It’s just a hunk of rock,” opines Woody, grumpy to the end. “Doesn’t look finished to me.”
There’s a lot of rumination – and ruination – in Nebraska. Payne’s black-and-white cinematography further emphasizes the starkness and desolation of the landscape, from cold-looking mountains to wide-open plains. The decaying towns in which Nebraska is set have a haunting, poetic beauty. Even the people, from two thuggish cousins to a smiling newspaper owner, seem defeated by the emptiness of it all, the wrinkles on their faces as full of stories as nearby, tattered store signs. Subtly, Bob Nelson’s screenplay speaks volumes about the current state of the American Dream and the hypnotic, destructive effect it can have on people. If Her wins over this film for Best Original Screenplay next month, as many have predicted, it will be one of the biggest travesties in Oscar history.
In supporting roles, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk create delicious, fully-formed characters. As Kate, Woody’s long-suffering wife, Squibb is comic dynamite, spouting acerbic remarks at family members’ gravesites and berating Woody for his countless shortcomings. Sometimes, she’s shockingly abrasive, but Squibb makes her strangely appealing as the film goes on, and her handle on the character’s mannerisms and sharp tongue is superb.
Meanwhile, Odenkirk does great work as Ross, clearly the more successful son (and Kate’s favorite), who’s only slightly less exasperated than his mother at Woody’s quixotic journey. Alone, any of these actors would be the best part of a lesser film. However, under Payne’s direction and with Nelson’s brilliant script, they come together to create an astoundingly strong ensemble. Scenes with all four bundled into a car crackle with laugh-out-loud humor and sometimes bracing drama, particularly when the disparities between the sons and their parents become more apparent.
Nebraska is something special. It’s hard to describe exactly why it’s so impactful, but everything about Payne’s film blew me away, from its stellar acting to its gorgeous direction to its heartfelt script. Nebraska is an elegantly simple story, masterfully told, and one of those great American films that only comes along once in a long while.
The Blu-Ray for Nebraska is presented in 1080p high definition, which preserves the gorgeous detail and moody tone of Phedon Papamichael’s evocative, black-and-white cinematography. Payne clearly had a vision going into the film and there’s nothing in the transfer that takes away any of its original beauty. Landscapes are rich and textured, and the attention to detail on characters’ faces is absolutely phenomenal. Dern seems to glow thanks to the black-and-white style, and the wrinkles on his face appear like miniature mountain ranges. This is a beautiful Blu-Ray transfer that comes highly recommended.
The 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is perhaps less heavy than usual audio tracks on major releases, but you wouldn’t know it. The audio track is more than enough to capture the beauty of Mark Orton’s wistful score and to make all dialogue and background effects crisp and clear. Any points of confusion would have to come from the thick Nebraska accents that pop up throughout the film. As far as the audio track’s quality goes, no complaints whatsoever.
Nebraska is only equipped with one special feature, which is:
- “The Making of Nebraska“
This making-of mini-doc runs approximately 29 minutes and does a terrific job of covering all the bases. It’s neatly divided into segments, which are “The Script,” “Cast and Characters,” “Locations,” “Shooting in Black and White,” “Working with Alexander” and “A Film Family.” All of those chapters feature intriguing, insightful commentary from all manner of people involved, from all the main cast members to Payne, Nelson and several producers. Particularly interesting are the segments about the long journey Nelson’s script took from the idea stages to filming and about Payne’s battle to keep the film black-and-white, against distributor Paramount Vintage’s wishes.
Paramount Home Media gave Nebraska a suitably strong Blu-Ray release. Though I wish there had been more than one extra on the disc, “The Making of Nebraska” is an atypically solid and well-structured featurette, offering a large amount of interviews and minimal amounts of footage from the film. The video and audio quality are both up to scratch, so I really can’t think of any reason why a self-respecting cinephile wouldn’t want to add Nebraska to his or her collection. Charming, melancholy, humorous and supremely entertaining, Nebraska is a sizable slice of movie-making magic, complete with great acting, breathtaking cinematography and a script as good as Payne’s best.
Powered by Bruce Dern's finest performance to date, Nebraska is one of the most entertaining and profoundly touching cinematic experiences I've had in recent years.