by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
When asked why he drained the color from his new film Nebraska, Alexander Payne unveiled his vision for skeletons.
Though the film was first shot in color (via technological demands and international screening rules), the director and Oscar-winning screenwriter was searching for leafless trees stretched out like bones, pasted on the bottom of the horizon. This above-ground cemetery, hued all in blacks, whites and grays, is the blueprint for Payne’s Nebraska.
Nebraska is plotted out like a west-to-midwest road trip that spends less time on the interstate than its synopsis suggests. Point A is Billings, Montana, home to Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte). David is called loudly into his father’s life, presumably more than usual, by his mother, Kate (June Squibb), as Woody continually tries to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the million dollars he believes he’s won via a magazine promotion.
David continually insists the mailing is a scam, but Woody sees this prize money as a ticket to some material redemption. He would use the winnings on a new truck (even though he’s unable to drive) and a new air compressor to replace the one his old business partner lifted from their repair shop in Hawthorne, Neb. (Point B), decades before. David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Kate are skeptical of Woody’s on-foot adventure to the point of dismissal, while David insists for the first of many times that Woody’s wanderlust isn’t “about” one million dollars, but a ragged life’s last gasp for freedom. He decides his distant and virtually silent old man ought to have it, and they shove off for Lincoln (Point C).
Like Woody’s shuffling, and much of Payne’s non-satirical work (Sideways, About Schmidt), the film’s gait is a meander, made all the more unhurried by the small-town quicksand of the second act. The fictional town of Hawthorne, Nebraska (actually shot in Plainview and Stanton, Neb.) is so permanent in their journey, the road is more a supporting cast member.
What ensues in Hawthorne is a kind of comic (and occasionally threatening) misunderstanding on the part of the townspeople about Woody’s unclaimed fortune. From jovial glad-handing to resurfacing debts of questionable viability, everyone in Hawthorne has some personal stake in Woody’s winnings. In a quickly inflating circumstantial bubble of Emperor’s New Clothes proportions, the film’s central cracking begins. The Oscar-nominated Dern gruffly and touchingly inhabits a shambling man so hapless and physically contorted he might as well be one of Payne’s roadside trees. But the grubbing rural community forces both his son David and the audience to keep on driving at the moments we’d like to put on the brakes and study Woody the most.
As David, Forte (best known as an alumnus of Saturday Night Live) is adept and understated in his drama, and his most effective mode is exasperation. In its subtlety, it’s not a star-making performance, but not a heavy brood in the vein of when comedians such as Adam Sandler and Bill Murray have bitten off serious roles. Forte operates in an effective cower, while it’s Odenkirk who effectively vultures the loudest laughs, which is appropriate given his role as the higher-achieving older brother. Forte’s wide-mouthed frown offers a blank sadness, his biggest mistake not yet made but implied, that he could actually fit in fine with his ambitionless extended family.
Squibb and Dern are an oppositional pair. But while Squibb’s performance is being hailed by critics as something comedic and contrasting to Dern, she is just as inaccessible, and in some ways more troublingly so. While none of the boys can shake or scold words out of Woody, Kate seems to loudly insist — tucked in between firecracker quips: “so-and-so was a whore; so-and-so wanted in my pants” — falsehoods that show her own denial. She claims that Woody is always going on about his millions of dollars, when the man doesn’t speak unprovoked all movie long. She brazenly claims that David is just like his father when they set off to Lincoln. This appears to be wholly untrue, other than the the fact that they’re now both doing something she doesn’t agree with. She will say anything and nothing is heard, quite possibly the saddest character either disguised or miscast as comic relief.
Criticism of the blue-collar slapstick that bounces through Hawthorne isn’t as simple as the fact that Payne, a film director, has portrayed a crop of yokels in a movie definitively titled Nebraska. Payne is a lifelong champion and part-time resident of Omaha, seemingly well-aware of how cosmopolitan, intellectual and impressive Nebraskans can be. It’s that Payne is a deeply interested realist, a realist who is tweaking reality by way of its “austerity,” his reasoning for the black and white. In his directorial and narrative style, Payne expresses a keen interest in environmental authenticity, casting non-actors as the Hawthornians. He speaks of actual smalltown Nebraskans who subconsciously revised screenwriter Bob Nelson’s dialogue to his surprise and excitement. What could be more real than using real people?
But that interest in authenticity comes through as a little off-hand. Nebraska is not a documentary. The onus of representation is on Payne and Nelson. They can tell the story of the state however they’d like to, unbound by reality. Of course, Nebraska’s landscape isn’t really in black and white: They’re after a kind of tonally convincing poeticism. Would that same poetry have been more responsibly executed, or perhaps felt more complexly Nebraskan, were it done by professional actors who didn’t look like they were gleaming with excitement to be in a movie?
Through scenes of Woody and David staying at Woody’s brother’s home in Hawthorne and the extended family watching football and glumly debating the names and dates of pickup trucks, the stranger in a foreign land routine wears thin for David. If he’s in such a hurry to let his father live out his last dream, why does he force him linger in this place that neither of them care for at all? Even more, there are blips on Nebraska’s human radar that people do far worse things when they’re doomed to live and die in one place than watch the Bears play the Lions and perform poorly at small talk. Real suffering and regret is something the film knows momentarily, but is a little too light-fingered to exhume amid one-liners about Woody’s cluelessness.
None of this is to say Payne can’t express mixed emotions or make films rooted in conflict. Payne’s cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, performs keenly especially when pulling the darkness from both shadowed faces and perhaps best from the ghoulishly white features of Dern. Textures drawn out of the black and white would be lost in a broader color spectrum. Still, wipe and dissolve transitions clash again for a misplaced sense of play.
The words “dramedy” or “a dark tale with a lot of heart” don’t come close to describing a movie both about a Midwestern desert and a humor that shields its otherwise mute characters.
What we know, through all the roadside bars and stunted conversations between David and Woody is that there’s truth to what the son keeps repeating in defense of his father. This trip is not about the money. And yet the movie manages to be. In this way Nebraska lets all of its characters off too easy. They ought to blow up. They ought to at least try to question the truly damaging confessions and shortcomings in their lives. And it’s not a Midwestern sensibility that holds them back. It’s using Woody’s dementia, which comes off less biological and more as environmental subjugation, as a comedic blockade to relationships.
If Nebraskans would like their homes to come through as more varied and more cultured than the film allows, it’s because there’s more to ask from the characters, big and small. For all the steeping the black and white accomplishes of foreground and background, of environment and character, Nebraska feels more like an undercooked artistic recipe than a full family meal.