The gap between fathers and sons is the distance between two lives. Lives experienced on wholly differing planes of existence yet somehow occupying the same space. The interior worlds of both parties are hidden behind the veils of their exterior actions, and both must make assumptions regarding the other based solely on the information apparent in the world at large. There is a complexity and a nuance to the interaction and communication across this gulf that is rarely ever accurately portrayed in film. It is my pleasure to say, Nebraska, that you effortlessly place yourself in the high pantheon of those films which succeed in this regard.
This should come as no shock, though, seeing as you come from director Alexander Payne, a filmmaker who has proven himself uncannily adept at creating stories that explore the many ways in which we interact with both one another and the world at large, and how those things act upon us. Here the protagonists are David and Woody Grant, a son and father who live in the same town, but share none of the same perspective. Woody (Bruce Dern) has received a piece of mail meant to sell magazine subscriptions that claims he has won a million dollars, and he trusts that there could be no duplicity in this statement.
Meanwhile, David (Will Forte) and his brother and mother (Bob Odenkirk and June Squibb) are worried about their father’s mental health. His recent obsession with his “winnings” simply adding a cherry on top of the sundae of worry they have already constructed. Woody has taken to trying to walk the several hundred miles to claim his winnings in the face of a lack of aid from his family, and it isn’t long before David, with his failed relationship and menial job, relents and decides to drive his father from Montana to Nebraska.
Thus we have the beginnings of a classic road trip film, wherein truths will be told and understandings arrived at. The joy in your particular story, though, is the way in which the inaction of the father grows to inform his character. What we at first believe is mental deterioration soon grows into a kind of trusting passivity, a naiveté that comes from a place of deep trust and bottomless goodness. The man is not without flaws, as we can see with his constant drinking and as we gather from the stories told about his rough fatherhood, but the script by Bob Nelson is nuanced enough to know that sometimes bad things are informed and bred by deep wounds. And what better allows for emotional wounds to be inflicted than a lack of cynical armor?
The dawning understanding that David gains for his father is truly moving, and to see the way that they begin to interact differently with their family and the old friends who populate his father’s hometown is engrossing and affecting. Dern’s performance is what grounds all of this, however, creating a character so layered and empathetic that though he changes none of his affections throughout the film, we continually see him in new ways because of the new information we learn about him. It isn’t he who grows throughout the film – many times he makes clear that he is at the end of his life, and thus finished his evolution – but we who grow in our understanding of him. Thus we take on the perspective of his son David, and find even more empathy in his position and investment in his journey.
All of this spectacular character work is bolstered by the stark, evocative black and white cinematography which is especially powerful in the meditative interstitial moments where the camera just takes in the desolate-yet-beautiful midwestern landscapes. The lack of color drains a dimension of visual opacity from the proceedings, leaving our view of the emotional and personal aspects of the film unobstructed.
All of this may make you sound like a bleak, depressing march through heavy-handed drama. Instead, you carry with you a sharp wit, a powerful observational humor that runs throughout your story like a rich vein of gold in a tough cliff-face of quartz. It is an incredible mixture, creating an indelible impression on the viewer.
At the end, you become one of the most emotionally touching and cathartic films I have view this year. And believe me, given the overall strength of the cinematic output over the past twelve months, that is quite an accomplishment.
Overcome with affection,
Brian J. Roan