By Jay Sizemore
Nebraska is filmed in muted black and white, a striking aesthetic choice in this age of HD-everything and whiz-bang CGI attention-span competitors. Even the Paramount logo is an older logo, because just as the characters of the movie are trapped in a forgotten time, this film wants the audience to go back with them. Alexander Payne seems to prefer the slow-burn narrative drama to the high octane vapidity that currently pervades most of Hollywood cinema, but he is a meticulous craftsman, one who tries to make every shot count for something. It’s this perfectionism that often impairs the nuanced realism the director apparently yearns for from his projects. I say that because the characters on the screen often appear uncomfortable, afraid to move, and careful about how they speak their dialogue. This is something I have noticed in other directors’ works as well, when those directors are too preoccupied with the perfection of their shot composition, rather than capturing the truth of the moment in that composition.
Having said that, despite this occasional lack of perceived spontaneity, Nebraska does succeed more than it fails when trying to capture the rhythms of regular life. The narrative plods along at a consistent pace, much like the lumbering stride of its main character Woody, played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Bruce Dern, who stubbornly tries to walk from Montana to Nebraska until his son, played by Will Forte, reluctantly decides to take him. Woody foolishly believes there is a million dollar prize waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska because of a marketing letter he received. What transpires on this road trip is a gradual learning experience about family, how much of the past we simply forget or never bother to ask about, and how much those experiences shape the people we end up becoming. It’s also an uncompromising look at how the central American states have been left in a forgotten era, almost immune to the progress experienced by so much more of the country, their streets and buildings left to ruin in economic hardship, and their people with nothing to do but get drunk in local bars, grow old and eventually die. This is what makes the news of Woody’s recent good fortune the talk of the town where he grew up, because nothing good has happened in that town in a long while.
This is not a happy, feel-good movie, a feeling perhaps enhanced by its lack of color; those long shots of pastoral landscapes and horizon-lines feel as devoid of life as they are of vibrancy, something that perhaps echoes the nihilistic ruminations on life Woody expresses throughout. When they visit Mt. Rushmore, he speaks about how it isn’t finished, how the artist got bored and didn’t give Lincoln an ear, how it’s just a bunch of rocks. When they visit the house he was raised in, he speaks of the fear of stepping into his late parents’ room because he would get whipped, but there’s no one to whip him now and, standing outside, he calls the place “just some wood and weeds”. Is this really how that character feels, or is this lack of emotion just a defense mechanism, a wall built by a person so beaten down by life’s monotony that they have forgotten what real joy is? A person who just went along with everything, including going to a war with his two brothers, marrying a woman because “why the hell not?”, and helping out any friend or family member who needed it, just because, despite never getting anything in return? It becomes clear that the point of the journey in Nebraska is not simply to collect a million dollar prize, but to rediscover something that has been taken for granted so long it has almost ceased to exist. Something that just needs to be shown an iota of selfless compassion so it can remember what it feels like to be loved. This is a journey we all need to take.
Jay Sizemore is a film critic for the magazine.