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