By Ohad Amram Columnist
Critically acclaimed writer and director Alexander Payne put his Oscar-winning screenwriting abilities on the back burner for “Nebraska.” It’s the first film he has directed but not written. “Nebraska” is a black-and-white drama/comedy that explores family dynamics and the relationship between a father and his son.
The film begins when Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, journeys on foot from his Montana home to Nebraska to claim a million dollar reward he believes he won.
His estranged son, David, played by Will Forte, lives a life of despair as a music speaker salesman who’s recently split with his girlfriend of two years. Convinced and reassured by his mother Kate, played by June Squibb, and brother Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, that his father must be institutionalized, David decides to go. The trip appears to be the last few memories they can share together as his father’s recollection is waning.
The story becomes increasingly complex when the other half of the family, both Kate and Ross, decide to meet up with Grant and Woody along the way, where they stop to reunite with Woody’s siblings in his hometown. The root of Woody’s alcoholism is revealed and hints at the tough post-war life he led.
The bonds between Woody and David strengthen by virtue of the script and it becomes evident that despite the little history that the father and son share, there is a genuine mutual love and admiration that begins to surface.
That said, this is not your typical Payne film. For better or worse, this is a feel-good road film that strays far from the usual path that Payne takes in character building. Both Bruce Dern and Will Forte’s characters are less ambitious than the leads in notable Payne films such as “Election,” “Sideways” or “The Descendants.” Although this may allow for a more mainstream audience because the film coheres to mainstream standards, it lacks the go-for-the-gusto, bold narrative typical of a Payne film.
The performances by both Dern and Forte were believable for the small town, reclusive setting. Both characters encompassed a sense of hollowness that matched well with the somber tone and score of the film. Scored by Mark Orton, a member of the musical group Tin Hat, the score of the film set the tone for the rural backdrop that harmoniously intertwines a dramatic edge with consistent, comedic relief. Very few films walk that thin line with caution and accuracy.
The only drawback to these characters in “Nebraska” is that they lack certain sharpness that’s required in order to thoroughly become engrossed in their actions. The fact that both appear so passive by comparison to the usual characters that Payne draws up, makes “Nebraska” far less entertaining than the majority of his other, more notable works.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who’s been the director of photography for the majority of Payne’s films, captures the loneliness felt within the town, characters and mood of “Nebraska.” One thing is certain, whether you’ll enjoy this film or not, Alexander Payne was able to draw a mainstream audience to what many would consider an art film – a feat few could achieve.