I struggle to comprehend the thought process that went behind Alexander Payne’s filming of Nebraska. Here is a man who just came off a huge success with 2011’s The Descendants. Why shift into reverse and travel down a lonely road that leads to nowhere?
Coming out of this movie a friend of mine compared it to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in that the characters do not progress. I thought for a moment, deliberating the authenticity of this observation, but then I realised that he was right. The characters in Nebraska do not progress. Not emotionally. Not mentally. Not physically. Their bonds with each other are not strengthened. We see a guy get punched. Two overweight clowns wear ski masks and rob their relatives. Mount Rushmore is seen from a distance. It could even be superimposed. “It’s not finished!”, Woody Grant complains. He’s right. The movie he’s in doesn’t seem to be finished either.
Woody (Bruce Dern) is an aged man with thinned white hair, and he believes he’s won a million dollars. Sure, it’s a scam. Everyone knows that. His wife knows it. His sons know it too. Probably somewhere deep within himself even he knows it. Nebraska opens with Woody walking aimlessly down a highway. A cop pulls over and helps him along. He’ll be walking aimlessly many more times.
To win his million dollars, he has to reach Lincoln, Nebraska. In between Lincoln and his hometown of Billings, Montana, lies his childhood town of Hawthorne. Here is where most of the story takes place. Woody’s old friends welcome him with open arms and the town, now more or less barren, becomes a photo album in which Woody and his family can dip in and out of. He travels with his son David (Will Forte), who obliges out of pity. There are family reunions of all sorts here as we gradually get to know Woody’s extended family. He’s got brothers coming out of his ears, and time has worn them out so pathetically that even while they’re watching a football game together, they’re about as excited as Dr. Neuman witnessing Stanley Ipkiss attempt to turn green.
A key character in Hawthorne is Ed Pegram, Woody’s friend from donkey’s years ago. He’s played by Stacy Keach, who has that uncanny ability of being able to assume the good guy role and make him convincing only moments before he swivels his head around like that mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas. I say he’s key not because he’s pivotal to the story. Oh no. He’s key because he’s the only one who presents any sort of fluctuation to Nebraska’s pace and tempo. Turns out, his morals are not so centred, and that’s always great drama.
What of this pace and tempo? Nebraska is a bleak movie, from start to finish. It’s shot in black and white, but it’s not even a black and white that’s sharply contrasted. Everything seems flat and uninteresting. No doubt we are meant to feel that Woody’s life is flat and uninteresting too, but why subject us to similar displeasures? “Glacial” is not the word appropriate for this film. 2001 was glacial. Nebraska seems to want to push forward to Lincoln as much as we do but is held back by its desire to linger on the past. Don’t get me wrong; its screenplay — written by Bob Nelson — is charming in the way it portrays father and son, and for many it will resound deeply. But in my opinion, Payne takes the screenplay nowhere. For a director so promising, Nebraska is a step in the wrong direction.
There are bright moments, as when David and his brother steal an air compressor from the wrong barn, but they are outnumbered by uncomfortable and misplaced moments. Look out for a scene involving a tombstone and an old lady. You’ll be glad the camera’s on her back.
Before I end this I want to point out that the casting is unfortunate, with the exception of Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach. Will Forte, whose career spans most of comedy television, seems out of his depth here as the patient son. Scenes of raw emotion and gravitas wash over his blank face as if he left his expressions behind. And not for a second did I believe his relationship to anyone in his family. There is an awkwardness that hovers over all the characters and dialogue, and it’s not the good kind. I won’t even bother telling you what happens in Lincoln. You’ll get there. Eventually.
Best Moment | The whole air compressor scene.
Worst Moment | The tombstone and old lady scene.