As you may have noticed, I am quite lucky, or at least determined, when it comes to actually getting to see the films that I want to see. Since the back end of 2010 it has been quite unusual for a mainstream film to come out and my not to be able to catch it on the big screen in some form, the main exceptions being a particular style of mainstream thriller which the Oxford city centre multiplexes don’t seem to like very much.
Nevertheless exceptions do occur and I am lucky enough to have a colleague who not only enjoys movies as much as me, but also still buys DVDs. Apropos of I-don’t-remember-what, he asked me a while back if I’d seen A Field in England, and when I admitted I hadn’t and that this was a source of some regret, he was kind enough to put it in my direction. Also included, and which I was (of course) much too polite to demur about, was Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
Now this was a movie which did get a release at the Oxford Phoenix and which I could quite probably have gone to see on the big screen, but I must confess that something about it didn’t really appeal: a black and white road movie comedy-drama about a dysfunctional American family? I don’t know, I thought I had much too strong an idea of what this film was going to be. (And I must confess to having gotten Alexander Payne jumbled up in my head with Alexandre Rockwell, despite having seen and enjoyed The Descendants and About Schmidt, though I doubt that’s a hanging offence.) It took me a while to actually getting around to watching the DVD, in rather the same way it’s taking me a while to actually start writing about Nebraska – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find enough things to say about it now beyond simply restating the obvious.
The core of Payne’s film is the relationship between Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man in small-town Montana, and his son David (Will Forte). Woody is, not to put too fine a point on it, a contrary old git, a borderline alcoholic who appears not to give a damn about anyone but himself, and when he is discovered one day seemingly wandering at random on the edge of town, there is a sort of communal sigh of dismay from everyone connected to him.
But Woody insists he is not senile: he is in possession of a letter assuring him that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake. It looks like an obvious scam, but Woody refuses to accept this and tries again and again to leave town, heading for Lincoln, Nebraska where he can collect his winnings. Short of having his father put away, David realises there is no way he can convince him to stop: and it’s with a certain sense of resignation that he realises he has no really pressing business to prevent him driving his father to Lincoln himself.
Various complications inevitably ensue, and David and Woody find themselves taking an extended break from their journey in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne. Staying with the family brings all the usual little problems, and provides several reminders of Woody’s chequered past: but there is a more serious concern as well. Word of Woody’s supposed good fortune gets around, with the result that various interested parties and longstanding debtors come out of the woodwork, all making their claim on the apparently-nonexistent fortune, and making not-so-subtle threats as to what may happen if they don’t get it…
So, Nebraska is a black-and-white film from an indy-ish director whose biggest star – internationally speaking, at least – is probably best known for films he made back in the 1970s (I’m thinking of Silent Running and things like that). The opening shot is of an urban landscape, with a tiny human figure stumbling through the snow towards the viewer for what feels like a very long time. A violin is playing soulfully on the soundtrack. Is this simply just the kind of film that it appears to be?
You know what I mean: Arty and Significant and probably just a bit Slow and Depressing. It has to be said that Nebraska does go on for over two hours, and a lot of it consists of various characters driving back and forth between the same handful of places. The plot contains no great reversals or stunning twists.
The fact that Payne chooses to film it in black and white is, I think, a significant artistic choice, rather than the result of budgetary constraints. The results have a sort of pristine clarity which is is quite beautiful; the cinematography is quite beautiful. The thing is that much of the film is actually taking place in locations and concerns people which you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being remotely pleasant to look at: hospital and motel rooms, scuzzy taverns, the backs of cars, filled with large men in baseball caps and dungarees or slightly decaying older people. This is a very blue-collar world, in places almost a redneck one, and it seems to me that by filming it in such an elevated style Payne is trying to summon up the magic of the everyday and commonplace and invite viewers to look again at the world around them. I suppose this does tie in to the theme of the film somewhat, which is that of David Grant reappraising his father and their relationship, and to some degree himself.
On the other hand, if Payne really is trying to suggest that beauty is all around us, filling his movie with so many small-town grotesques and cantankerous elderly curmudgeons is a strange way to go about it. Nearly everyone in this film is either mildly weird and/or objectionable on some level, or very weird and/or objectionable. The exception is, naturally, David himself, because as the viewpoint character he has to be someone the audience identifies with – but it’s never really explained why he should be the only normal one in the family.
It sounds like I had a terrible time watching Nebraska, doesn’t it? And, to be fair, the early part of the film does have an air of quiet desperation about it which could bring a person’s mood down, as David realises nobody’s life seems to be going anywhere, and Woody’s quest to collect his million is really no more absurd or quixotic than any of the concerns held by the other characters in the film.
But it was never actually a chore to watch, and as the film went on I found myself warming to it quite considerably: I do like me a slice of low-key comedy-drama once in a while, after all, and it would be absolutely unfair to suggest that Nebraska is anything other than extremely well written, directed, and performed. Dern gets the showy role, obviously, but Forte is extremely good as the straight man of the film: his is a performance of considerable subtlety, and the transformation in attitude he goes through by the conclusion of the film is convincing without feeling heavy-handed. The final sequence of the film is, to be honest, quite charming and lovely, without going into details too much.
So there you go, proof that a really good film can win you over even if you do (figuratively speaking) turn up to it with serious reservations. In narrative terms it’s a small, low-key story, but one about universal themes of family and respect and coming to terms with the disappointments of life. I’m not saying I’m in a hurry to watch it again soon (which is a shame, as I should probably give the DVD back), but somewhere down the line I would definitely like to look at it again.