Review: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) – A Genuinely Heartfelt, Humanistic and Realistic Father-Son Road Trip Film

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*Spoilers, y’all*
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is old, tired and confused. He’s had a tough life. He fought in the Korean war. He may or may not have married the wrong woman (June Squibb). All he has left are his two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and his booze. For once in his life he wished he had something more. So what if he won a million dollars? That would be pretty cool. Of course it would also be too good to be true, but his good-hearted son David decides to drive him all the way from Montana to Nebraska anyway. 

Nebraska is a great road trip film. As you would expect the physical journey of the father and his son, soon also turns into a metaphor for an internal journey. Both characters travel through their own life history. Nebraska is where Woody grew up, came of age and made his most important decisions. The decisions that shaped his life. Being drunk most of the time it seems that he didn’t really care. He could never really take responsibility for his actions. He let others decide for him, take advantage of him even. His life passed him by and he didn’t even notice.

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David is still young. For him the journey is all about trying to figure out his dad, why did he become the way he is? Why does he drink so much? And why does he want to be a millionaire all of a sudden? In every place they stop he discovers something new about his father and learns to see him in a different light, which only makes him love and understand him more. By the end he realizes that all his father wants is to leave him something. He wants him to remember him, but he also wants to know that he’s going to be okay when he dies (financially).

I knew that I was going to like Nebraska, being a big fan of Alexander Payne and American road trip movies in general, but I didn’t expect to connect to it so deeply. In a lot of ways I felt that I had lived similar situations and encountered similar characters in my life, when I traveled with my father to visit my grandfather (RIP) in southern Italy. I was stunned by how certain scenes were almost one-to-one recreations of interactions I’ve had with relatives (especially the cousins in the film). There’s something universal and inherently honest about Nebraska that I feel only a director like Payne can capture.

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Some of the things that Payne discusses resemble actual conversations I had with my father. It’s Payne’s worldview that is so fascinating, because it’s not embellished or exaggerated in any way. He’s not making fun small town people. David’s character is from a small town and yet his attitude is completely different from that of say his uncle or his cousins. There are a couple scenes where you see characters that are just glued to the TV in complete apathy and no desire to communicate with anybody. Those were both funny and sad at the same time.

In fact a lot of the movie is comedy and drama simultaneously. In fact sometimes it’s hard to know when to laugh. Like Werner Herzog in Stroszek (1977) and David Lynch in The Straight Story (1999), Payne is painting a picture of rural America. It seems that Woody’s relatives lost all interest in life. They merely exist. All they care about is cars, watching TV and eating. Their own personal world seems to be getting smaller everyday. Unlike Herzog’s films where there seems to be no solution to life’s pointlessness, Payne seems to leave some room for happiness.

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Like in Herzog’s world David and Woody walk around searching for God knows what, like chickens searching the ground for some corn. Literally in two scenes they’re purposely shot that way. In another interesting scene Woody is compared to a moth who’s drawn by the light of a bar. It’s almost as if is he shut off his brain, now admittedly he’s a bit senile or in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but it’s undeniable that Payne is also making a clear statement on the human condition. We all look for purpose in our lives, some of us give up, some of us find something eventually.

While I love movies that don’t give “easy solutions”, it’s worth applauding when a film does seek to give some sort of advice to the viewer. Especially if it’s good advice. In this case the “honor your father and mother” message is quite clear, but as I said I believe it’s a good message. Both David and Woody are happier because of their trip together. They’re closer to each other. There’s a sense of closure by the end. Apart from being an inspiring and superbly acted character piece, Nebraska is also beautifully shot by Payne’s longtime collaborator Phedon Papamichael.

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The black & white aesthetic immediately makes sense, because of the main character having lived a large portion of his life in that era. I can’t imagine this film being in color. Other technical achievements of Nebraska include Mark Orton’s quirky Americana score. The good thing is he doesn’t over do it. He manages to keep an even tone throughout without jarring shifts and mood inconsistencies. One last mention goes to Sandy Veneziano brilliant art direction, why am I not surprised by the Italian surname? The film looks absolutely amazing from start to finish.

In terms of Payne’s filmography I’d say this film is sort of a mix of About Schmidt (minus the cold and desolate feel) and Sideways (with beer instead of wine). Another film I’d recommend if you enjoyed Nebraska is Mike Cahill’s King of California (actually produced by Payne), though that film is clearly more of a comedy with Michael Douglas’ character hamming it up au contraire de Bruce Dern. Oh, and Evan Rachel Wood, but let’s not get sidetracked. Nebraska is yet another successful film by a consistently great director and I can only recommend it.

8 out of 10

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7 comments

  1. literaryvittles

    I’ve been going back and forth trying to decide whether to see this film. Your review definitely pushes me in the “yes” direction! Glad to hear the b&w didn’t annoy you or strike you as prosaic; I was afraid that might be the case.

    • davideperretta

      Well, I’m glad I could encourage you to check it out. Why were/are you undecided? Not a fan of Payne’s work? Or was it just the b&w? It totally works, it’s not pretentious at all, it sort of just feels natural!

      • literaryvittles

        Well, it seemed sort of… indulgent I guess? A very typical kind of existential struggle. Plus, I liked Sideways a lot but at the same time found it annoying, and the same goes for The Descendants. I can’t put my finger on exactly what strikes me as off about those movies, but they leave me with a slightly uncomfortable feeling.

      • davideperretta

        Maybe I know what you mean, because I think they made me uncomfortable too in the beginning. Then I sort of just got used to his style I guess, but there’s definitely something about them that’s difficult to put into words.

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Films of 2013 | black is white

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