‘Nebraska:’ Not So Black and White

In Nebraska, Bruce Dern inhabits Woody, an aging and increasingly defiant man who believes he’s won a million dollars when he receives a sweepstakes mailer. He insists on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his money. His constantly sighing son, David (Will Forte, one of my favorite SNL cast members of recent history) decides to humor his father and take him on this mini odyssey, if only to prevent him from wandering down the highway and trying to walk there himself. On their way to Lincoln from Billings, Montana, Woody and David stop by Woody’s old hometown to spend time with his brothers and other relatives, confront an old frenemy of his, and attempt to avoid confronting his alcoholism.

Nebraska is a collection of interesting choices. Alexander Payne directs Bob Nelson’s at times schizophrenic script. The black and white, sparse and depressed landscape of Nebraska is beaten to death with human failing. David and Woody tread through ghost towns, garages, abandoned barns, old, sad taverns, and finally, a cemetery. They trip over muddled stories of Woody’s past, David trying to fill in a portrait of his father as a young man, and Woody drinking and grunting and mumbling about his million dollars.

Bruce Dern is touching as Woody. He’s sure that he’s won a million dollars, frustratingly insistent on his own self-reliance, but secretly, enormously terrified about his life coming to an end without leaving a worthy legacy behind. David’s Wheel of Conflicted Feelings spins and blurs the lines of sympathy, anger, contempt, curiosity, pride, and pity for his father, who was never a particularly good one. Will Forte is masterful in some moments and seems a little dizzied in others. But the overall good nature of this man makes Forte an affable, though not perfect, choice. June Squibb plays Kate, Woody’s wife and David’s mother, the loudest part of the film, a sparkling, comic knife that slices right through the reality of the situation, which is a pathetic case of persistent delusion. But she is a clown. Her performance is exaggerated; her lines paint her face as if to make it clear we are looking at a representation rather than a person.

Many of the performances are like that in Nebraska. The acting, overall, seems almost amateurish and non-naturalistic, which I am sure was a choice, but I wonder to what end. The effect is that it seems like a stage play set in the plains. The acting is consistent with the black and white of the screen. The performances are merely extremes (of hospitality, in the case of David’s aunt, or of buffoonery, in the case of his cousins), with the exceptions of Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Perhaps Payne designed it this way to keep all humanity between father and son, to make taut the emotional rope between them, so as to be able to let them loose in other directions, in interactions with other characters. It’s an interesting choice, but not a wholly successful one, because it makes the script seem inconsistent and indecisive. It moves from straight, slapstick comedy to darker, more nuanced satire, but the film struggles in between these moments with a method to get to the next one. The film views like a work in progress, like a sixth or seventh or ninetieth draft from an extraordinarily passionate group of people. It’s a difficult story to tell, but one definitely worth telling.

Grade: B+

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