Many people go to the movies nowadays to get away from everyday life- they don’t want to be reminded of poverty, mundane routine and one’s own inevitable aging. This leads me to believe that not a lot of people will go to see Alexander Payne’s Nebraska as it is full of these themes, and yet, they are missing out, as this movie raises a mirror towards the harsh reality, and then converts it into something far more remarkable and heart-warming.
The performance of veteran film star Bruce Dern, who has worked with such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan, is phenomenal; his efforts rewarded with the Best Actor Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Dern plays Woody Grant, a senile old man with a drinking problem, with such perfect attention to detail in his mannerisms that one may truly believe this film is a documentary. The first shot of the film finds Woody walking alongside a highway in small town America, pulled over by a cop and then taken back to a police station. The reason for his wandering is his mistaken belief that he has won a million dollars in a prize draw of Mega Sweepstakes Marketing. He is therefore intent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his reward, and intends to walk all the way across two states to do so. Like any person, Woody still has certain wishes he wants to fulfil- buying a new air compressor because he loaned his old one to a friend 40 years ago, and a buying a new truck even though he no longer holds a driving license. His son Dave (Will Forte), whose love and work lives have both taken a turn for the worse, decides to indulge this fantasy and drive his father to the sweepstakes office, although many things go wrong along the way.
There are many silent moments in the film- the cinematography does most of the talking, with shots of Bruce staring out the car window as they pass by lonesome fields and herds of cows. It is in this way that the director manages to convey that sometimes the beauty of life is found in its simplicity. Nebraska is not all woe and misery, however- it has its moments of laughter with the eccentric characters and their anecdotes of their past, especially Dave’s mother Kate (June Squibb). Ultimately though, the decision to shoot in black and white is reflective of the overall mood of the film, as well as the nostalgia that every character seems to feel. In the end, Woody’s true intent in pursuing his dream is revealed, as he finally admits to his son that he doesn’t want this money all to himself, rather he wants to leave something for his children and future generations. This pipedream might seem crazy at the start, but in the end one finds that Woody merely wants to “be somebody”, to fill the void that has taken over his life and grasp on to something, anything, in order to give that life meaning again.