Nebraska: Slow and Steady

I have mixed feelings about road trips. Who doesn’t love bonding with friends and family with a panorama of beautiful scenery extending as far as you can see? At the same time, road trips are always undercut by cramped space with limited mobility and nothing to do. For me, watching Nebraska, a two-hour film about a father-son trip from Montana to Nebraska, felt a lot like a road trip. I’m torn.

Nebraska opens with seventy something-year-old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) slowly walking on the side of the road towards the camera from a distance. Unable to drive and with no ride, Woody repeatedly attempts walking hundreds of miles to collect a one million dollar prize he believes he’s won. But the police and his family members always intercept him before he can leave the city. Eventually, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) agrees to take his father on the trip and let him indulge in the fantasy for a few days. They make a stop at Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where news of Woody’s fortune turns him into a celebrity.

As with any good road trip, the scenery carries you along. Alexander Payne’s choice to film in black and white creates an old-fashioned look and feel that augments the characters’ slow pace of life. The cinematography further highlights the beauty of rural America with careful shots of breathtaking farmland and countryside highways.

But the camera doesn’t stop its magic after we roll into town. A particularly memorable set of scenes takes place in front of a TV screen, a space occupied by the camera. The men of the Grant family face the TV, directly speaking towards us; those who aren’t sleeping comically misunderstand each other in roundabout, meaningless conversation. The camera affectionately emulates these slow-moving figures in the way it moves in and around cars – focusing, losing focus, and re-focusing on characters as they enter and exit the vehicles at the heart of this road trip.

Driving the best aspects of the film is Bruce Dern, who plays the senile Woody Grant to perfection. His obtuse failure to understand his surroundings, his flawlessly timed “What?”s, his unrelenting determination to collect his prize money, and his intimate relationship with alcohol are both heart-wrenching and hilarious. Offsetting Dern’s powerfully hushed performance is June Squibb’s boisterous portrayal of his loud, gossipy wife, Kate. Kate’s quick-tongued comebacks and uncensored witticisms bring life to the small town of Hawthorne and to this understated film.

Dern and Squibb set a high standard that the other actors in the film fall short of meeting. Good lines are delivered too forcefully, creating awkward moments that detract from the subtle atmosphere Payne seems to be striving for. But it’s not all the actors’ fault. The screenplay belabors Woody’s symptoms of dementia, David’s insecurity, his cousins’ pig-like personalities, and the town’s smallness, turning its characters into exaggerated caricatures. Woody’s old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), is plain nasty. He’s too mean, too sleazy, and overall just too evil for such a low-stakes plot.  These missteps are just enough to let an otherwise captivating film veer off road, making the two-hour film feel a little too much like the long road trip it portrays.

Though it has its flaws, Nebraska is nevertheless a unique and refreshing film. A look into the slow paced lifestyle of the rural Midwest, Nebraska is slow paced itself. I think David’s cousins’ disbelief that it took him “a couple of days” to drive a distance they could have covered in “eight hours” best summarizes my feelings about the film. Nebraska’s painstaking attention to detail results in an exquisitely made film, but it also demands a lot of patience from its viewers – patience that we don’t all have.

Grade: A-

 Kristi Yeung is a senior in the English Department.