Movie Review: Nebraska

Andrew Marvin, Contributing Writer

Perhaps you’ve seen a man like him before … an old and worn-down man, limping along the side of a busy highway in the middle of nowhere in pursuit of a long-dead dream. This is the first image that “Nebraska” offers up: a gray, dreary picture of American life. The most significant accomplishment of this movie is that it paints its subjects as totally unremarkable, yet strangely familiar. Many films have created this same effect before, but not quite as well as this one. It elevates itself above similar films with its sensitivity, intelligence, and understanding, and it is strangely touching in spite of itself.

That old man is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). Grant is steadily losing his mind to age and alcohol, and when a flyer arrives in the mail informing him he has won $1 million (if he purchases enough magazine subscriptions, which he fails to consider) he decides to trek from Montana to Nebraska to collect. His son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him there, if only to keep him from wandering down the highway alone. A standard road trip movie this is not, as the majority of it is spent in Grant’s hometown, where—despite David’s best efforts to protect his father—Grant’s friends and acquaintances also fail to pick up on the deception and try to mooch off of the old man.

Sadness is ingrained into the core of “Nebraska,” but it never feels manipulative. Admirably, it avoids easy conclusions and does not attempt to bait emotion from the audience. Nobody cries, nobody gives a speech, and big themes are not laid out for critical cherry-picking. Director Alexander Payne is smart enough to recognize that his audience is clever and lets them work it out for themselves. Great works of art are rarely obvious, and “Nebraska” is anything but obvious. Though it may seem at times a bit obtuse or overly ponderous, it feels good to simply observe a narrative rather than have it spoon-fed to you.

The sadness and sense of absolute control by Payne extends well beyond the script. Though the arthouse-phobic may detest the use of black-and-white photography over color, it feels more like a tonal contribution than an unnecessary entreaty. It is both moody (sorrow and saturation do not go well together) and practical (the rural Midwest is not eye-pleasing in the fall and winter). The score, similarly, is placid and discreet yet immersive and well-designed. One might intuit that Payne had a specific vision, and that vision is exactly what we are seeing. In the age of studio influence and market analysis, seeing a film where the director is free to work to the best of his ability with absolute autonomy and control is a treat. The photography, cast, and script all fly in the face of conventionally profitable film-making, and had it not, “Nebraska” would not have the same impact that it does.

And yes, Dern and June Squibb (who plays his overbearing, aggressive wife) are very good. Their Oscar nominations might have told you as much. This film serves as the capstone of Dern’s career, allowing him to reach a height that he never has and that few actors ever do. Grant is cantankerous, angry, and desperate, but portrayed with uncommon tenderness. Behind his eyes lurk traumas and nightmares that he’d rather forget and of which we are never explicitly informed. We don’t need to know what they are, only that they are there. He could be any old man anywhere.

This is what I admire most about “Nebraska.” Payne’s films often concentrate on a specific strata of American society and pick apart its constituents. Adversely, “Nebraska” tackles the wholly average. Simply put, this film gets it, understands it, and transforms it into something beautiful. Stories aren’t often told about the small, identical towns you pass on the highway, but this film tells one and tells it poetically. Who knew that the average could be so remarkable?

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