Nebraska gently cruises along its hilarious monochromatic roadway. Time. It always catches up on us. You wake up one morning feeling fresh and energised enough to tackle the day ahead. The next? Unable to remember the previous week as you adjust your hearing aid and insert false dentures. The progressive deterioration that age produces insights pessimism to those who succumb to it. Unable to live for anything, waiting for their grave to be excavated, ready to populate its earthly tomb. Woody Grant epitomises that attainable perspective, aimlessly prowling the streets of Billings, Montana. But when he receives a letter, inviting him to collect a million dollar sweepstakes prize, he becomes rejuvenated. He has cause for waking up every morning. A life worth living. Unfortunately, it transpires that the letter is, in fact, a marketing campaign designed to persuade gullible readers to purchase magazine subscriptions.
Does that stop him from wanting to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska? Absolutely not. And so Payne’s monochromatic comedy-drama sets off for a road trip down memory lane, a deeply personal endeavour exploring familial bonds and forgotten time. It’s a story powered by the realism it is constantly grounded in. The drama is uneventful. The road trip itself is on cruise control. The score is increasingly repetitive. But these purposeful choices highlight the poignancy of Nelson’s screenplay, which effortlessly develops each character through organic conversational topics. Before reaching their destination of Lincoln, Woody and his son drive to his hometown of Hawthorne. Surrounded by the ghosts of his past, Woody announces his winnings and instantly becomes a local celebrity. This newfound fame instantly attracts relatives who approach Woody and insist he shares his million dollars, likening them to ravenous vultures. Organic relationships like the aforementioned example, especially given the economic climate at the time, is what grants Nebraska its ornate aesthetic of pragmatism.
Whilst traversing the small town, Woody’s son learns of his father’s roots and strengthens the bond between them. It presents the ability to forgive past fatherly neglect for the betterment of Woody’s elderly years, offering an awareness for family migration. Something that we all experience, making Nebraska instantly relatable. Nelson’s fresh comedy complements Payne’s light-hearted direction, transforming a morbid subject into a study on life. Combating pessimistic virtues with optimistic opportunities, whether that be incorrectly stealing an old air compressor from a barn or arguing over the length of time it takes to travel from Montana to Nebraska. The dialogue maintains a buoyant tone throughout. Payne occasionally directs these conversations as if in a staged environment. Characters rarely talk over each other, and the pauses in between responses prevented an organic flow. It lacked a cinematic edge to take the drama to the next level.
Fortunately the cast accentuates Nelson’s comedy perfectly. Squibb, playing Woody’s wife, was categorically hilarious with her colourful language. Endearing with a mean bite. Dern, however, was the star as Woody, turning in a powerhouse performance with minimal dialogue. The visual presentation he supplied, especially when interacting with Forte, was masterful. The slight nuances, from constantly looking confused to asking people to repeat themselves, gave resurrected life to his character. Forte on the other hand, primarily a comedian by trade, was the weak link. His acting is often viable for television, with less than expressive facial movements and powerless line delivery, and was unable to transition to the dramatic heft of cinema (despite starring in straightforward comedies). Although the bond between Forte and Dern was well established, the former lacked the same energy as the remaining cast members.
Papamichael’s cinematography, and the insistence of a monochromatic filter, proved to be a fruitful endeavour. The shades of grey offering a colourless viewpoint from the perspective of Woody, who spends the majority of the feature in his hometown. Landscape shots as they drive across America were exceptional, with Payne’s lingering scenes enhancing the film’s entrancing poignancy.
Unlike other road-trip features, Nebraska balances grounded themes with intelligent comedy. It illustrates the menial frustrations and plausible joys of life through a family nearing the end of a generation. Endearing, reflective and, most importantly, humorous. Shouldn’t life always be that way?