There is a sense in Nebraska that its director, the Oscar-nominated Alexander Payne, knows this area of the country quite well. That’s because he does. Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and he has a clear affinity for the people of the Midwest and it shows with the highest of affections on every frame of his follow-up to The Descendants.
The film is in black and white, and yes, that is a rarity these days. But, after witnessing Payne’s masterwork, it’s hard to imagine seeing it any other way. It’s not that the people and landscape of the swath of land where this story takes place -- the highways of Montana through the titular state -- are without color. It is in fact the opposite.
Payne’s filming of screenwriter Bob Nelson’s characters and their journey of familial discovery is all the color this story needs. The black and white is so beautiful -- it is as if a new Ansel Adams photograph is discovered with the passing of each scene.
Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, the father to two boys, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and the husband to a firecracker named Kate (June Squibb). Woody is getting old and, as our film begins, he is simply walking down the freeway… determined, yet appearing lost. He is taken by police back to their Billings, Montana office where his son David picks him up. After taking him home, he gets an earful from his mother about how ornery his father is and how he is going on about some lottery winnings that need to be picked up in Nebraska.
See, Woody got a letter from what David knows is a scam office in Nebraska saying that Woody has won a million dollars. Yes, that’s where he was walking to in the opening scene. After several attempts at walking are halted again, David gives up trying to stop his father and, as the Nebraska trailer shows us, they hit the road. Kate yells at her son and husband, telling them that they are both crazy.
What happens next is a road trip movie combined with a heartfelt family discovery film. When we leave the house we grew up in at a certain age, we certainly feel that we are close to are parents… but do we really know them over the years that follow?
Throughout Nebraska, Forte and Dern butt heads and come together but what is impossible to ignore is the love each has for the other that shows itself as much as two family men in the Midwest can express those sorts of feelings. It is touching, frustrating, compelling and all astounding.
Dern is better than ever, and that is saying something. The actor has had the most decorated of careers, and if he never makes another movie after Nebraska, it will be his crowning achievement. Let’s hope that is not the case as Movie Fanatic believes that he will earn an Oscar nomination and this will be the beginning of a new chapter in Dern’s career.
Forte, meanwhile, as a comedy vet, comes up roses as the son who seeks to learn more about his father who was less than there for him as he grew up. The two of them together make true movie magic and are at the heart of why Nebraska is one of the best films of 2013.
And someone who almost steals the movie entirely is Squibb. Her Grant matriarch is tough as nails and uncompromising, and it takes a special talent to make someone completely adorable who is so grating and tough to love. Squibb does it with panache, and she may sneak into a Best Supporting Actress nod with the wave of Academy love that is sure to come Nebraska’s way.
Our Nebraska review has to point out that Payne has further entrenched himself into the category of American directors that audiences can unequivocally expect to find greatness from each time he picks up a camera. If you thought The Descendants was a slice of movie heaven, then Nebraska is the whole pie.