Movie Review: Nebraska
The Academy Award for best picture is meant to denote the best cinema has to offer. Sometimes the best cinema has to offer is a cold coin for a dead man. Nebraska is such a film. It’s billed as a drama, but it really is a tragedy, except nobody dies. It rises to all of the merits of a great film: it is beautiful, artistic, well-paced, and timely. It is also depressing. It is not surprising that Nebraska is a black horse for the best picture nod; this movie makes a diagnosis of cancer seem jovial. And sometimes, that’s the kind of film people need to see.
The thrust of Nebraska is the futile imaginings of Woody Grant, played with a scary vacancy by Bruce Dern. Woody receives a promissory note of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse ilk, stating that he has (maybe, kinda, sorta) won a million dollars. Despite the better council of his eldest son and wife, he sets out to claim his reward, being pulled in off of the highway hitchhiking several times, until his youngest song, David, played by Will Forte, agrees to take him to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. This is the happiest the movie gets.
Woody and David go on a road trip through fly-over country, and demonstrate the aptness of the name. The country is populated by people all too familiar, though just barely alive. Along the way, David confronts Woody on his drinking problem and neglectful parenting, and gets no consoling answer better than “that’s just how it was.” And that is just how it is.
Nebraska is full of stereotypes, of the uncomfortable type. Of the type, where you know that you are watching a walking assemblage of tropes, but cannot discover the stitching to see how the monster has been assembled. It seems, appallingly, that the creation is made of one solid cloth, stitched of real life, and may actually, depressingly, be real. There are no great performances in Nebraska; there is nothing but great performances in Nebraska. You can’t help but believe that these sad individuals are real.
Sparse and Bright
The choice to film in black and white is well utilized here. This movie, about the final movements of old age, sadly benefits from being stark and drab. Nothing is gorgeous, but the sharp contrast is beautiful and sear, like a wasteland of dead and pretty things. Did I mention that this film is depressing?
Dern and Forte, as well as most of the supporting cast, are excellent. They invest their characters with a sad kind of life that approximates the original, and fully cloth themselves in sad, old, cliches…except they give you the sense that these are not cliches, but the actual lingua franca of a country you would dearly like to believe is fake, but is probably real.
“One day, you will be bound like so, and led where you do not wish to go…”
Nebraska is a terrifying movie. The American Dream, big capital letters, is on gawky display here, and it seems threadbare and tawdry. The horror of growing old is like an omnipresent undertaker, sitting behind you the whole film, quietly biding his time. It would be valiant if Bruce Dern were fighting tooth and nail to regain some semblance of autonomy and dignity, refusing to silently go into that good night…but he isn’t. He is mostly gone to the other shore, with only the idee fixe of his million dollar winnings keeping his animated corpse shambling along. He has pissed away a life of small decisions, and this make-or-break plan is his only way to break even, not win. And he doesn’t even grasp the magnitude of it. He just pulls like a mule, wanting finally to take a few final steps in a direction of his own choosing. Despite that direction leading right over a blind cliff.
The horror of the movie, finally, is that the director creates a damning case that this folly is the only real choice a person can make.