If only film studios would realize that with the budget for one science fiction or vampire film they could produce 10 road movies, I would go to the cinema more often. When I saw the trailer for Nebraska, I was excited. Finally a road movie again, and then about that northern part of the US where I haven’t yet been, but where I would so much love to travel myself.
Woody Grant is retired, drinks too much and shows signs of dementia. When he receives one of those sweepstakes letters from a publishing house in the mail, he thinks he has won a million dollars. To collect the prize in person, he sets out to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. He doesn’t get far, but his son David – who knows that there won’t be any prize – feels sorry for him and volunteers to drive his father to Nebraska. David seems to realize that anything that gives his father’s life some purpose, even if it’s only for a few days, is worth the effort.
And off they go on the typical road movie trip. Long drives on straight roads, motels, some talk in the car or in a bar, a quick stop at Mount Rushmore. Because the film is shot in black and white, the landscape and the little towns look even more barren and poor than they may be in reality. It definitely doesn’t look beautiful and that is one problem of the film. Road movies are also carried by landscape. Here, the landscape takes a back seat and the actors take over.
That’s not too bad because the actors are the strong side of Nebraska. Bruce Dern as Woody delivers a very convincing performance, as do most of his relatives. With some of the old folks that they meet on the way, I wonder where you can cast actors like these. My favorite one is John Reynolds as Bernie Bowen:
But the problem of the film is that even these actors don’t get to say or do much. If you watch the trailer and the clip above, you have already seen most of the film. In between there is a lot of silence, a lot of driving, a lot of nothing really. When Woody and David visit Woody’s brother and his family, whom they haven’t seen for 15 years, and they hardly exchange any words before they fall asleep on the couch or silently stare into the TV, this serves to illustrate how empty some people’s lives are and how family and hometown are not necessarily the best places for a good conversation.
But at other times in the film, the absence of action and dialogue just makes the time go by very slowly. There is just not enough happening for a film of 110 minutes. I don’t need to watch several angles of a Subaru cruising down a black and white highway. Great acting is wasted by making the film purposefully slow and depressing. And then there are no real surprises. When you first see Woody’s nephews hear of the supposed prize, you already know that they will try to rob him. It’s no surprise that many of his old acquaintances ask him for money. And of course father and son finally get to spend some time together. I wish somebody would have written a better script with at least a few twists and turns for these memorable actors who surely would have mastered more of a challenge.
If you want to watch a good road movie, I recommend Don’t Come Knocking (at least it is colorful) or Elizabethtown if you want to add the estranged family aspect. I also consider Flashback and Borat road movies. Or you go for the classics Grapes of Wrath, Duel, an early masterpiece of Steven Spielberg, or The Wages of Fear.
OK there was some bleak landscape accompanied by ordinary lives, but it’s beautifully photographed – but didn’t you think the film was funny? Laugh out loud funny in places. There are some really great characters, very cleverly portrayed with some clever (ok, it’s minimalist) dialogue; and Woody’s comments on first seeing Mt Rushmore is priceless!
Yes, there were some funny dialogues. Woody’s wife made some attempts at humour, which I found very crude.
But the emptiness of the lives of most of the characters is depressing. Like the family whom they visit in Hawthorne, who can only talk about cars and nothing else. I felt like these people would be doing the same with their lives in 5 years or in 10 years from now. There is no purpose, no enjoyment in life, they just live along because they haven’t died yet.
I was also a bit fooled by the trailer, all the best lines are in there!
In some ways I was happy to be fooled though, the slow parts made me slip into the atmosphere of the small towns and small minds of the film. The silent scenes in front of the sofa were the ultimate antithesis to the talky, punchy dialogues that make Tarantino and screwball comedies spring to mind.
I thought they were a lot of quiet moments were played for laughs and the awkwardness of knowing that the relatives were going to ask for money in such an obvious way was cringingly brilliant.
A few ponderous shots of the car or the landscape could have been cut, but the familiarity of plot-twists (August: Osage County is a great soap opera of Oscar-baiting family drama) to keep the audience gripped makes Nebraska feel quietly daring at times.
You’re point about film budgets is well taken. There’s very few sci-fi or vampire movies that are worth seeing, let alone stand the test of time. Road movies are usually much more endearing. I’ll have to see Nebraska.
When you get the chance to visit the northern plains you’ll see firsthand that not filming in color doesn’t take much away. ;-) However, when you do get to Nebraska, be sure to see Carhenge. :)