“Nebraska” seems to be the kind of a film described by auteur Terry Gilliam (“Monty Python,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) in an interview with Indiewire’s “The Playlist” earlier this month. “If a film captures you on some level,” Gilliam said, “you can forgive [it]. Films aren’t perfect things.”
Gilliam was not talking about “Nebraska,” but I see this film falling easily into the grey area Gilliam describes; “Nebraska” was not for me, but I can understand why people like it.
It has some good scenes, some honest-to-goodness great scenes, and one really good performance. But, for me, the lack of effort put into handling and mastering this film’s unconventional medium — digital black and white — in conjunction with mostly poor acting, largely due to a poorly written script, I could not help feeling bored and disappointed.
The film follows geezer Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his estranged son David (Will Forte) as the two make their journey from Billings, Minnesota to Lincoln, Nebraska in hopes of collecting a $1 million Mega-Sweepstakes Marketing prize; David knows the prize is nonsense, but Woody appears to, or wants to, believe it’s real.
The trek is claustrophobic despite the expansive landscape surrounding this awkward father-son duo. The two are confined to the road, the small towns they pass through, and each other.
As the film opened with a classic black and white paramount logo — fuzzy, grainy, with lots of silver tones — I thought, “Okay, they’re trying to look like black and white film stock.”
The director, Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”), was less than successful. The film was shot digitally, in color, and later converted to black and white. But to get a truly stunning picture this way, the process is a painstaking one, not nearly as simple as one might think.
It was immediately apparent to me that the filmmakers put minimal effort into this conversion, didn’t know how, or some combination of the two. I’ve seen good digital black and white — 2013’s “Frances Ha” comes to mind — but here, “Nebraska” fails. The film is silvery and soft, but in a way that doesn’t do the story justice. Most of the film is grey, not black and white, and the effect comes off as amateurish.
Bruce Dern’s performance is the best, by far and, ironically, he is also the one with fewest lines. Bob Nelson’s script has each character speaking directly from their subconscious, which unfortunately accomplishes a numbing, two-dimensional effect, making it difficult for the actors to deliver their lines with any level of believability. I expected at least a solid performance from Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad”), who plays David’s brother, but Nelson’s poor scripting denied me that satisfaction.
The eerie, subconscious, black-and-white Midwest that Nelson and Payne create is frustrating. Like most good movies, “Nebraska” attempts to move just under the guise of realism, but in this case the facade is not convincing. It’s as if the Payne and Nelson couldn’t decide what they wanted, realism or explicit satire, and the viewer is left not knowing what to think.
Will the film win “Best Picture” at The Oscars? Of course not. If it does, then to quote performer/musician Tom Waits, “God’s away on business.” However, I would not be too surprised to see Bruce Dern win “Best Actor,” as he did in 2013 at the Cannes International Film Festival.