It’s been a few weeks now since I saw Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s monochrome comedy-drama and I didn’t originally intend to write about it. But of all the films I’ve seen in the last couple of months, it’s the one that has stayed with me the longest. Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody, a grouchy old man whose moments of lucidity are swamped by his seemingly frail mind. Woody receives a sweepstakes letter which tells him of a million dollar prize win which he is determined to collect in person. Despite warnings from his family that the prize is bogus, Woody is undeterred and eventually his son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive across country to Lincoln, Nebraska with his father to pick up the winnings. Along the way the pair stops in Woody’s small hometown where he reconnects with the past.
At this late stage in 2013, Nebraska stands as one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It’s an absolute delight, merging neo-realism with caricature in a way that I’ve rarely witnessed before. It manages to be both grounded but quirky, serious and flippant and focuses in the everyday side of America rarely featured in Hollywood films. The characters don’t moan about money while living in mansions or complain about their dream jobs, these are Middle Americans, dealing with normal issues and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
The film’s premise is simple. Woody is old and confused. He thinks he’s won a large sum of money but we all know he hasn’t. It’s a position that many families, mine included, will have found themselves in with older relatives who are easily targeted by spam and fake competitions. What happens next is we are treated to a road trip with a father and son who share little common ground. I expected this to be how the film would continue but there is an unexpected detour to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska which is where the main body of the movie is set. It soon gets out that Woody is about to be a millionaire, a news story that enraptures the tiny town and makes headline news in the local paper. Woody takes great delight in this while David, his son, tries to keep a lid on the money he knows to be nonexistent. Along the way we learn more about Woody and begin to understand why he is the man he turned out to be. We unearth this at the same time as David and almost see his father through his eyes, understanding why he drinks, why he doesn't seem to care and why he is the Woody he is.
What I really liked about Nebraska was that it felt like I was watching real people. No one is airbrushed, some people look a little odd and they speak like real people speak. You feel almost at home in Hawthorne and it never feels fake. You get the sense that the townsfolk really have lived there their entire lives, forgetting that they’re all actors who have been bussed in. The film’s magic comes form its simplicity. You soon get the idea that it’s no fluke that Woody is back in Hawthorne. He’s a man with a score to settle and the wealth he is soon to come into is a smokescreen which hides his past as a failure and a drunk, two things that Woody continues to live up to to this day. With the news, Woody goes from a footnote in the town’s history to its biggest draw and his celebrity creates a fresh slate from which he can build a new reputation. Whether he really knows the money isn’t coming is to be debated but it could be argued that his mind isn’t as gone as was first thought and that he is in control at all times.
Alongside the central story of the money are several side plots set around Woody’s family. His wife Kate, played magnificently by June Squibb, is at her wits end with her inattentive, couch potato husband and spends every ounce of breath berating him for his choices and actions. What’s lovely though is that she is first to leap to Woody’s defence when anyone else has a bad word to say about him. In a way she reminded me of the caricatured British housewife that is popular in the minds of America. An apron wearing, ball buster who has her husband on a short lead. Their relationship is a delight to watch. Other members of the family come and go while friends pop up here and there for a hand out. As a character study the film is a raging success with probably ten to fifteen side characters that you could watch for a full ninety minutes.
The film has moments of drama and sadness but also plenty of laughs. I’d go so far as to say that it is amongst the funniest films I’ve seen all year. Woody is a hilarious grumpy old man who reminded me a lot of myself. He likes things done his own simple way and doesn’t want any fuss. He says what he wants and doesn’t mind who he offends. His wife Kate is a vivacious old lady with a spiky tongue and a heart of gold. She is responsible for delivering some of the film’s best lines and the funniest graveyard scene you’ll ever see. Dave plays the straight man role but plays off his larger than life parents well. The rotund, hick cousins provide a lot of humour with their small world view, ridiculous pronouncements and greed and there are moments of farce and slapstick which creep into the plot while somehow the film as a whole remains realistic. I really don’t know how Payne managed it.
As well as being a great story, the film also looks beautiful. A lot has been said about the decision to shoot in black and white but really it’s up to the director. Personally I think it works well as we step back in time with Woody while it also makes the scenery of the Great Plaines look sublime. There is a slight grain to the digital image which ages the ‘film stock’ slightly and this works well too. The use of black and white isn’t gimmicky and serves a purpose. For me Nebraska is one of the films of the year. Its enchanting story and beautiful visuals are offset by two of the year’s best performances and if Bruce Dern and June Squibb don’t end up with major awards nominations in the coming months, I will buy a hat and eat it. This is a film you really have to see.