Despite colour being the predominant form of filmmaking, black-and-white pictures are still made every year. Nowadays, however, it’s generally for artistic reasons, like in The Artist or Sin City. The small-town feel of Nebraska is so perfectly suited to black-and-white, it’s hard to imagine what the movie would look like in colour.
Written and directed by Alexander Payne, Nebraska explores the relationship of a father and son in Montana. The father, Woody (Bruce Dern), has been an alcoholic all his life and is struggling to find something to live for in the boredom of old age. The son, David (Will Forte), divides his time between working in a home electronics store and taking care of his aging parents.
When Woody receives a letter in the mail saying he’s won a million dollars, he doesn’t understand that it’s a scam used to sell magazine subscriptions. He doesn’t trust mailing the letter in to receive his money and he’s too old to drive anymore, so he repeatedly sets out walking to the magazine office in Lincoln, Nebraska.
After David keeps catching him and taking him home, David finally decides to drive his father to Nebraska – to keep him to wandering off again, to show Woody there is no million dollars, and to bond with the father he never got to know over one last road trip.
Dern is haunting as a man slowly fading away and unsure of what’s going on much of the time. For a man who’s given many great performances, Woody is one of Dern’s best and a guaranteed ticket to the Oscars.
Even more impressive is Forte, who has previously been known purely for his comedic work on shows like Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and Clone High. Forte conveys desperation, sadness, naiveté, bemusement, and flabbergast all with just a look in his eyes or a quiet sigh. It’s a remarkable performance that shows great promise for Forte’s future in TV and movies.
Director Alexander Payne’s best movies are about relationships, whether it’s between friends in Sideways, between a teacher and a student in Election, or between family in About Schmidt and The Descendants. Nebraska is no exception.
It can be seen as a road trip movie, as a one-last-hurrah movie, or as a dysfunctional family movie – and it is all of those things, but it’s more than just its pieces. It captures the feel of small-town living and the relationships therein in a way recent movies like August: Osage County and The Family weren’t able to. Part of that is the black-and-white look of the movie, part is the acting, part is the writing, and part is the directing. But the true power of Nebraska lies in the sum of those parts.