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Nebraska: In Glorious Black-and-White


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Nebraska poster

In this day and age, it’s a rare occasion to see a new black-and-white film on the big screen.  Most studios consider them a risk; remnants of an era long gone; box office poison.  With the exception of The Artist, winner of 5 Oscars, there have not been many commercially successful black-and-white films in the past decade.  It’s a triumph when any movie is given the green light to shoot with a limited color palette, that’s why I was especially excited to see Nebraska, the latest family dramedy from director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).

Paramount Vantage wanted a color film, but Payne’s vision was black-and-white.  He came to an agreement with the studio and accepted a smaller budget to make it his way.  The result is one of the most beautifully shot pictures of the year.

Woody (Bruce Dern) is an aging, boozing, father who receives a piece of junk mail that says he’s the winner of  a million dollar mega sweepstakes marketing prize.  It’s obvious to Woody’s family that he hasn’t won anything and that it’s just a ploy to sell magazines, but he refuses to accept the truth.  Woody sets out on his own to walk the 500+ miles from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim his prize money.  Wandering along the highway, Woody doesn’t make it far before he’s stopped by a police officer and returned to his family.

Against his family’s wishes, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) agrees to accompany his father on the journey.  The trip takes them to the small Nebraska town that Woody is from, and hilarity ensues when it’s revealed that he’s a millionaire.  An assortment of oddball characters come out of the woodwork and feel entitled to a piece of his imaginary winnings.  These are the trappings in which Payne explores themes of family, and aging with dignity.

Nebraska sends up small town folk with deadpan humor and is often viciously funny.  June Squibb plays Woody’s wife Kate.  She steals many scenes by spouting golden nuggets of foul-mouthed dialogue.  Her humor is the most obvious/intentional in the movie, and her character’s lack of a filter draws the biggest laughs.  Some of the supporting characters may come off as caricatures to the uninitiated, but having grown up in the Midwest they struck a familiar chord with me.  The entire ensemble does a tremendous job, but its Dern and Forte’s chemistry that hold it all together.

These are not your everyday leading characters.  Dern, 77,  is a seasoned screen vet, but he is stripped down and weathered here.  It’s a wonderfully raw turn as leading man from an actor who’s made a career out of playing supporting characters.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he garners his first Oscar nomination since  he was up for best supporting actor in the 1969 Hal Ashby flick, Coming Home.

Forte of SNL fame (MacGruber!) plays against type and holds his own with a beautifully understated performance.   He knows that it’s ludicrous to drop everything and accompany his father on a fruitless mission, but he goes along anyways in an attempt to understand an aging man that is still a mystery to him.  Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad) is also cast against type as David’s brother Ross.  I’ve never seen him play a character this grounded and it’s a nice change of pace.  Ross is frustrated with his father, and has less tolerance for his strange behavior than David.

The cinematography is poetic; the black-and-white essential to the feeling of times forgotten.  Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have constructed a look that feels like it’s of a different era and recalls the classic Peter Bogdanovich films Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show.  The dusty landscapes are beautiful, yet desolate; like old snapshots.  At times the camera goes in and out of focus, a visual metaphor for Woody’s psyche.  Nebraska wouldn’t have the same impact if it were shot in color.

Paper Moon 1973 Tatum and Ryan O’Neal

Not only is it nice to look at, Nebraska also sounds great.  The score was composed by Tin Hat member Mark Orton and fits the movie well.  His melodic horn and guitar themes make the cinematic landscapes more poignant.

This is the first movie Alexander Payne has helmed without being directly involved in the screenwriting process, yet it feels as personal as any of his other features.  It’s my favorite movie he’s directed and one of my favorite films of the year.  Nebraska refreshingly defies convention and is worth checking out on the big screen.  It’s not often that we get to support a new black-and-white film, especially one that so expertly marries art and entertainment.

I rate this film 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls.

Essential Viewing: Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show, The Straight Story, Down by Law, Hud

Check out the trailer below:

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