Best Picture Odyssey: “Nebraska”

Well, we’ve reached the end of the series. I kinda wish I had something more bombastic to close with, but this isn’t exactly a great list of nominees. I mean, I don’t hate all the films, and a few of them even made my top 10 from last year (including this week’s subject), but for the most part this is a pretty forgettable group of films. It’s a side effect of expanding the field to nine or ten nominees. When’s the last time you heard someone talk about Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Amour? I can’t see Philomena or Dallas Buyers Club still being dissected and analyzed next February. 

How appropriate, then, that this week’s film is about being forgotten. The “going back to your hometown and everything’s changed/no one remembers you” is hardly original, but usually it’s told with young protagonists who have harsh egos and haven’t yet learned that things can move on without them. Nebraska‘s protagonist, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man, in his late seventies. He’s not egotistical as much as he is naïve. In terms of basic premise, we see that naïveté when he falls for a mail scam. He gets a letter telling him that he’s won a million dollars, and he believes it. The bulk of the film takes place in his hometown, which his son David (Will Forte) takes him to on the way to collect the “prize.” Everyone in the town thinks that the prize is real. Hijinks ensue.

When I started writing this review, I was convinced that I really enjoyed the movie. But the more I think about it, the more it falls apart. Woody’s character is inconsistent, and the whole movie is riding on it, so that’s a problem. Sometimes he’s surly and bitter, sometimes he’s resigned and apathetic. To be fair, though, the movie isn’t really about Woody, much as it pretends to be. The real focus is David, who is the only character with any kind of arc. Now, I don’t mean that negatively. This movie is about old people who have already set their personalities and lifestyles in stone, living in a town that’s equally static. David, being the youngest character, is the only one with any room to grow. That growth is mostly restricted to “I gained more respect for my father,” but nobody said this was a complex film. Will Forte gives a surprisingly good dramatic performance. It’s very straightforward, but it’s grounded and believable. Does he out-act Bruce Dern? Of course not. But he more than holds his own in their scenes together. Their relationship is the core of the movie, and Forte holds up his end.

Narratively, the film tends to wander. It fits with the general listlessness of everyone in the town, even when things really start to drag. Nebraska is almost two hours long, and and you could easily lose a fifth of that. Thematically it’s appropriate, but cinematically it can be a chore to watch. Which makes it strange when everything wraps up so neatly at the end. It’s like the final twenty minutes were written by a completely different person. The antagonists get their comeuppance, the protagonists get what they were looking for, and the credits roll. Even stranger, now there are established antagonists and protagonists, where there used to just be people. Alexander Payne’s direction may not exactly be subtle, but the rest of the film isn’t this broad. This is a more far-reaching issue with what the film wants to be about. It’s called Nebraska, so are we supposed to take it as a portrait of the entire state? The focus is so limited that that can’t be the case, but the title indicates otherwise. Ultimately, it’s hard to grasp what the film is trying to do with regards to its setting. It doesn’t present itself as a vague, “this could take place anywhere” movie. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson set it in Nebraska, and called it Nebraska. If they wanted to say something about the American Midwest, they should have made a film about the American Midwest, and not a father & son.

Nebraska is a black-and-white film, and I wasn’t convinced at first that it was a good choice. When I saw a trailer for the film several months ago, I was really put off. The film still had that glossy digital look, and something about combining that with black-and-white just seemed inauthentic to me. On the big screen, though, it looks fantastic. I did some research, and it turns out that while they did indeed shoot the film digitally, they edited it in post to make it look more filmic, adding grain and such. The finished film’s cinematography works. It gives the film an ugly, filthy look. You know when the snow is almost done melting, but there’s still brown, muddy piles of snow on the sides of all the roads? That’s what Nebraska looks like, and it’s perfect.

I just don’t have a lot of passion for Nebraska. At least, I don’t have as much as I thought I did. I still think it’s a perfectly fine movie, but there’s not that much going on in there. The performances are great, there are some very funny scenes, and the film’s mood and tone are pitch-perfect. There’s just not much of a movie here. It feels exactly like the town it’s set in; confused, a little meandering, and nothing you’re likely to remember in a few months.

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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