Nebraska (2013): Color is Superfluous

When a director decides to shoot his film in black-and-white, he must have certain confidence in the story, characters and aesthetics that he feels color may just be a distraction or even superfluous. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is exactly that.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this slow-paced, thoughtful, aesthetically gratifying, and deadpan funny movie. To take a break from the cacophony of festivities, the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, dinner planning and party hopping, Nebraska is a surprisingly fitting film to watch.

By no means is this a ‘holiday movie’, but if the season is about family, giving, and love, this is an apt offering on the big screen. There are strong thematic undercurrents that carry the quiet story from beginning to end. And I was gratified to see, once again, that visuals speak louder than words when it comes to the cinematic medium.

Nebraska - Woody & David

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old man of few words. Maybe the onset of dementia has driven him even more delusional and isolated, and alcohol doesn’t help either. Dern’s performance is spot on and totally engaging. From a marketing promo in the mail, Woody is convinced that he has won a magazine sweepstakes of one million dollars. He needs to get to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize. We see him at the beginning of the movie heading to Nebraska from Billings, Montana, on foot. He is too old to drive but not to walk.

Woody’s brash and critical wife Kate (June Squibb) calls their estranged sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) for help but all fail to dissuade him. Soften by the old man’s total absorption, and too kind to douse his dream, David takes a few days off work to drive his father to Nebraska. Thus begins an unlikely bonding road trip for father and son.

To quench his delusion, Kate and Ross will converge in Hawthorn, Nebraska, a town where Woody was born and spent most of his energetic years. There in Hawthorn, a fictitious town for the movie, they will meet up with Woody’s older brother Ray’s family for an impromptu reunion, hopefully to get Woody’s mind off Lincoln and the prize, and then they will return home to Montana after.

Hawthorn is the home of a younger Woody, a past that he rarely mentions, a place where his son David will come to discover a father he had never known. At Ray’s home, David meets his not-so-friendly cousins Randy (Kevin Kunkel) and Cole (Devin Ratray, remember the bad burglar from the first two Home Alone movies?) While the town folks are all congratulatory on his million-dollar win, Woody’s old auto business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) suddenly reminds him of outstanding debts.

A character whom I find the most endearing is Woody’s girl friend of his youthful past, the long time editor of the town’s newspaper Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan). She wants to run an interview with Woody about his alleged win. David meets up with her at the newspaper to clear up the misunderstanding. There we see a gentle and kind old lady who seems to have much admiration for his father, knowing him in the past as a sturdy, young man. Though now a widow, Peg is a happy and fulfilled grandmother. This is probably the most poignant scene of the movie. Through David’s learning of his Dad as a promising young man and this quiet, pleasant lady Peg, the haunting thought seeps into our mind: ‘What if things turned out differently?’ The black-and-white medium could well be the message itself. We are reminded of a past which we cannot relive. At the same time, we are provoked to think of the alternative scenarios of what could have been.

Director Payne had won two Oscars both for Best Adapted Screenplay for his previous acclaimed movies Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011). Nebraska is a totally different work, and one which I like the most among the three. A common thread that runs through all of them is the prominence of specific locales, the California wine country in Sideways, Hawaiian islands in The Descendants, and here the scenery flanking the long stretch of highways from Montana to Nebraska. In stirring and soulful black-and-white, the passing wide landscape of rolling hills and boundless prairies convey the existential passage of time, lost youth, and whatever memories that one accumulates or tries to forget, all immaterial as old age takes over, a soulful touch from the director of the new retiree played by Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002).

But this is a comedy, and there are lots that I have responded with spontaneous chuckles and laughs. The humor is totally enjoyable, and so is the overall atmosphere. We see a change in the mood as the son begins to appreciate more about his father. The ending is affective and gratifying. A check on IMDb leads me to the tidbit that director Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Ah… the river runs deep.

If I have a say, Nebraska would appear in the upcoming Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael), and Best Screenplay (Bob Nelson). However, considering the black and white styling, and the quiet, low-tech and slow-paced storytelling, it just may not attract those who are spectacle-driven. But that would be their loss.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


Other Awards Season Reviews on Ripple Effects:

12 Years A Slave: Beauty and Sadness

All Is Lost

Lee Daniel’s The Butler: The Trouble with Famous Faces

The Book Thief: From Book To Film


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

12 thoughts on “Nebraska (2013): Color is Superfluous”

    1. Stefanie,

      It’s an unusual and quirky film. I really can’t categorize it into any slot. You’ve to see it to know what I mean. I think you and Bookman would enjoy it. 😉


  1. Sounds like a film peopled with intriguing characters, Arti, including the landscape. I read that the producers (?) tried to fight off the R rating.

    Also, went to see The Book Thief last night. I think your conclusion of its being a little gem of a movie is right. Death as narrator seemed a bit heavy handed at the very end, though it somehow lightened the effect of Liesle’s losses.


    1. nikkipolani

      I think you’ll really enjoy the cinematography and yes, as you said, the landscape. The black-and-white makes it more soulful, albeit it’s a comedy. Now, regarding the R-rating… I didn’t know about this. And I must admit, I’m surprised, because there’s minimum violence. However, the MPAA could have qualms with the stories told by the old lady Kate, who, half delusional herself, remembers her youth as the attraction of every male in the town. I tend to see it as a humorous depiction of an aging woman, regretting the passing of her vitality and appeal. So those are actually poignant scenes. On the other hand, I like the R rating because the film requires viewers’ maturity to appreciate it.


  2. Oh, this just sounds wonderful! Just my kind of film, and especially so since I’ve renewed my attachment to my roots in middle America. I suspect there will be much there to appreciate, just in terms of the culture. Here’s a review from the Houston Free Press. I hope the film’s still around in our theaters. I’ll see, after Christmas.

    I’m heading for the hill country to visit friends tomorrow. Now, it’s time to turn off the computer and get my chores done (as soon as I read your newest).


    1. Linda,

      I think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s definitely not your typical road trip movie. I mean, how many road trip movies are in black-and-white? Right… quite unique and original. Let me know what you think.

      And oh so good that you can take a holiday trip out to visit friends. Sure, leave your computer at home and enjoy the country. Have a great trip and a Merry Christmas!


  3. Saw this last week and enjoyed it immensely. I like your point that “By no means is this a ‘holiday movie’, but if the season is about family, giving, and love, this is an apt offering on the big screen.” The kindness of David is special, but believable, and I agree re Peg. My husband didn’t like the b&w but I thought it was critical. For one, it ensured the landscape set the mood but stayed in the background. And, it was beautiful at the same time, but subtly so. Loved the humour … And I agree it’s better than his previous two novels. I still don’t really get all the fuss about The descendants though I enjoyed it well enough, and appreciated the point it was trying to make about land, family, ownership between “settlers” and early or original inhabitants, but it didn’t fully hang together the way Nebraska does.


    1. WG,

      Isn’t that a mesmerizing film? The B/W (the medium) is the message. I’ve stated my point in the post. And with that son David, I’m sure the family is quite intact. Very sensitive portrayals, aptly interpreted characters with some great performance by Dern, Squibb, and Forte. It had brought calmness and quiet aesthetics to the hustle and bustle of the Season. Yes, it was that long since I wrote the review. See the last paragraph of my Oscar predictions… I got all 5 of them right, and one more which I missed and that’s Squibb, deservedly (how could I have missed that.) 😉


  4. Arti,

    I almost let this film slip by, but decided to go see it before the Oscar telecast. I absolutely loved it, in fact of all the films that were nominated, Nebraska was my favorite (I did manage to see all of them). BTW, I love reading your review of the film, which I somehow missed back in December. It is as always, so exquisite and insightful. I especially like your analysis of the scene between Peg and David, “we are reminded of a past we cannot relive….provoked to think of the alternative scenario of what could have been.” You wrote of the ending being affective and gratifying, as I was leaving the theater I overheard an older woman saying ‘what a nice son, everyone should have a son like that.’
    One final note, a tidbit, if you will, Lincoln, Nebraska was where I spent my first Christmas in the USA some 40 years ago. The river runs deep, indeed😎😍😉


    1. Yinling,

      That is one memorable experience indeed! Your first Christmas in the US was in Lincoln, Nebraska. I can see why this film strikes a chord. Yes, the scene with Peg reminiscing, showing David his father’s youthful past is so poignant. Comparing Kate and Peg, I’m sure David must have felt a sense of loss with why things went the way they did, and not otherwise. Comparing Alexander Payne’s previous works that I’ve seen, Sideways, The Descendants, and About Schmidt, Nebraska is the one I like best, by far.


  5. Hi Arti,

    I am Yinling’s friend and she referred me to your site. My husband and I just saw “Nebraska” last week and really enjoyed it. I agree with you in everything you said about this movie and wish I could express my idea as eloquently as you did. Hope I will meet you sometime in the future.



    1. Elsa,

      Welcome and thanks for your kind comment! This is such a quiet and affective film, isn’t it? I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it. This is what Ripple Effects is about, people throwing in their two pebbles and stirring up some ripples after they’ve watched a movie or read a book. Thanks again for stopping by. Hope to hear from you again, and yes, wouldn’t it be great if we can meet in real life rather than at the pond only. 😉


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