After getting a sweepstakes letter in the mail believing that he has won $1 million, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging alcoholic father/husband pleads to his son David (Will Forte) to take him to Lincoln, Nebraska to earn his winnings. Although he believes it is a scam, David reluctantly takes his father on a road trip as a means to reconnect with him knowing that this may be the last time he can share an intimate father-son experience as they embark on a hilarious, yet heartwarming journey spanning four states that also serves as a beautiful portrait of reflecting back at one’s past.
When looking at the nine Best Picture nominees, Alexander Payne’s newest film Nebraska doesn’t immediately stand-out in terms of what presence it emotes on the screen. It doesn’t have the innovative visual splendor of Gravity, nor does it have the heart-wrenching historical significance of 12 Years a Slave. It also doesn’t have the euphoric groove of American Hustle, and above all, doesn’t possess the insane drug-addled debauchery that The Wolf of Wall Street has. An outsider may look at this lineup of nominees and quite possibly dismiss “Nebraska” for not looking nearly as exciting or innovating as its other fellow nominees. But what those outside naysayers might not realize is that with this slate of BP nominees, sometimes after sitting through films like the ones mentioned above, it takes a film of such beautiful simplicity to remind us that one does not need a complex story or the premium bells and whistles to make a film worth the investment for.
It’s funny that I mention that Nebraska is full of such beautiful simplicity – but that is all from the external view of the film. It is shot beautifully with the black & white cinematography and has characters that may feel somewhat traditional in that facet. And while this may feel like such a small film on that scale, the simplicity really just ends there. Because internally, this film reflects such an emotional complexity that makes these characters that seem simple off of just reading the premise and make them feel so real. And that is a credit thanks to the intimate direction of Payne, the blissfully hilarious screenplay by Bob Nelson, and above all, the remarkable performances by the leads.
Bruce Dern gives quite possibly the performance of his life as Woody Grant – giving such complexity as the aging man who you can’t help but love thanks to the perfect amalgam of hilarity and heartbreak his performance promises. Will Forte also gives a remarkably nuanced performance that was definitely snubbed for a Best Supporting Actor nod. It is the relationship between these two that definitely serve as the heart that beats through this film. June Squibb is also irresistibly hysterical as Woody’s overbearing, yet downright caring wife who electrifies the screen every time she appears. And of course, the supporting ensemble that also includes Bob Odenkirk among others all help serve this beautifully intimate portrait of a family that has definitely distanced themselves from eachother over the years.
It is refreshing to see a film like Nebraska to come out during this awards season. Not only as a beautiful love letter to the importance of the family dynamic – no matter how dysfunctional, but also as a wonderful tribute to the old days of Hollywood. While this film may take place in a modern-day setting, the black & white cinematography alongside Nelson’s charming screenplay give this film such a timelessness that the films good ol’ Hollywood era had. All-in-all, Nebraska is nothing short of incredible. Well done Payne. Well done.
Nebraska earns a 4.5/5.