You'll want to spend some time with Mom and Dad after "Nebraska."
Director Alexander Payne("Sideways") returns to the silver screen with his highly anticipated "Nebraska." It premieres in the U.S. after a successful showing at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, garnering the Best Actor award for Bruce Dern and a highly coveted Palme d'Or nomination for Payne.
I had the rare opportunity to speak with Payne in a conference call about "Nebraska," which is a road movie with funny and serious moments sprinkled throughout. It refreshingly plays like real life.
Let's dive right in. What strikes most people about the film - myself included - is that "Nebraska" is set entirely in black and white. As a modern audience of color films, this change is jarring and perhaps foreign to us - we haven't been treated to a widely released monochrome film since 2011's Best Picture winner "The Artist."
But Payne made this choice for several reasons. "When I first read the script nine years ago," says Payne, "the
very austere nature of the screenplay to me suggested a visual style in black and white." He never once considered color film.
Why'd it take nine years, you ask? "I was just finishing 'Sideways' and that's a road movie, two guys in a car," remembers Payne. "And ['Nebraska'] is two guys in a car. I didn't want to make two road trip movies right in a row."
"It's a beautiful form," continues Payne, "and [younger audiences] don't know that our great film heritage is largely in black and white… a format which is so old that it's actually new again." His heartfelt attitude towards monochrome film shows on the silver screen; "Nebraska" is the most colorful black and white film I've ever seen.
Monochrome won't shy from telling you everything about Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the decrepitly old alcoholic dead-set on claiming a million bucks in a contest he never entered. Every strain of white hair on his face and neck pops off the screen. The wrinkles, flakes, and spots on his scalp look like they could be peeled right off (sorry about that imagery). Dern accentuates every quirk of old age: teetering off balance on every step, laboring with every breath, and wandering off in either attention or distance.
Forget that last part if you put a beer in front of him.
Woody makes for some hilarious gags and jokes, but Dern never lets us forget his age. We laugh, but we also notice how desperately he needs something to live for.
What else would drive an old man to leave his house in Montana to walk all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska on the slim hopes of a million dollars?
His family doesn't understand him much. His wife, the sharp-tongued and loudmouthed Kate (June Squibb) always gives Woody and their sons an earful. She will shock you. The older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is a news anchor and painfully insistent on getting dad into an assisted living complex. Only the younger brother, David (Will Forte) is the one who grudgingly steps up, walks away from work, and makes the road trip with his father to Nebraska, even though he doesn't believe in the lottery prize himself.
It’s a family situation sure to cause some clashes. But drama is all about conflict, and the movie is full of drama. Satisfying, emotion-wrangling drama. Ironically, that drama isn’t over the million dollars, but all the family issues that arise along the way, especially when Woody meets some old relatives and friends later on.
Perhaps David learns the most during all of these family and friendly encounters, uncovering his father’s previously unknown history. He won’t get another chance, either; Woody’s body is just about ready to give up. There’s much more substance in those experiences than what could be won in a lottery, and that speaks to something:
"Nebraska" argues it's not about the destination, but the journey. And what a journey David shares with his father.
We - all of us - are also on the cusp of death, whether or not we know it. Life is painfully short. So cherish the journey; it may wind up being a hell of a lot more important than the goal.
This article originally appeared in Neon Tommy on November 16, 2013.