Road trips are one of life’s great joys which is why I enjoy heading to the hills in a camper van so much. It’s the ultimate road trip – one of the reasons I was so drawn to the new road movie, Nebraska.
Nebraska is a film that lives with you for a long time after the lights come up at the cinema.
It had me from “hello”, hooking me with its haunting opening sequence when we see Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) walking down a Montana freeway on some sort of journey.
Quickly it is revealed that stubborn, old Woody believes that he’s won $1 million in a sweepstake similar to those Readers’ Digest prize-winning competitions that used to be so popular.
This one is almost certainly a scam but this old timer won’t be swayed by the sceptics in his family and insists on claiming his prize in person.
Just one problem. The trip involves a 750 mile trek across three states from his home of Billings in Montana to Lincoln in Nebraska.
His family tries to thwart his plans but Woody is not to be denied. Eventually his mild-mannered son David (Will Forte) gives in to humour his dad and agrees to accompany him on the road trip,
So they set off for Lincoln to keep Woody quiet, a trip that involves many twists and turns on the way.
Their trip is pointless or so it seems – but as time goes by, they discover something about themselves, their relationship and the past.
The long and winding road
I’ve always been a huge fan of road movies, especially when the characters are as complex and well-crafted as in Nebraska.
This exceptional American road movie reminded me of some of my favourite cinematic road trips, notably Paris Texas and The Straight Story.
Like the protagonists in those films, we’re carried along on a journey of self-discovery and revelation… and like its counterparts, it’s sometimes a bumpy ride.
Nebraska does two things brilliantly – story telling and characterisation.
Sometimes I wonder if Hollywood has lost the art of story telling with its glut of CGI-laden blockbusters, formulaic franchises and predictable ‘star vehicles’.
There’s nothing starry or computer generated about Nebraska – it’s one of the most authentic and realistic films I’ve seen in a very long time.
Even the long silences speak volumes. Woody is a man of few words but we get to know him better than any of Hollywood’s garrulous leading men.
There’s more soul in a single glance or solitary stare in this film than any other you’ll see this year.
Director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson have a gift for conjuring up authentic and believable characters drawn from real life.
Payne has a knack for subtle direction and complex characters, whether it’s George Cloony’s dysfunctional dad in The Descendants, Jack Nicholson’s grumpy retired insurance worker in About Schmidt or Paul Giamatti’s forlorn Miles in Sideways.
So why is this latest road trip such a compelling ride?
Nebraska features believable characters drawn from everyday life, many trapped by their circumstances and mediocre lives.
Woody has never achieved what he should have in life on account of his alcohol addiction and lack of ambition. Similarly, his son David has settled for a mundane 9-5 job which is dull and unchallenging.
Instead of making them bitter and twisted losers, Alexander Payne creates empathy and engages us in their stories.
He takes them out of their comfort zone and makes them confront their demons and fears.
In many ways this is a film about loss – a man who has lost himself through alcoholism and depression – but whose journey brings him some kind of awakening.
Nebraska is poignant and moving but there’s plenty of bitter-sweet twists and humour along the way.
Dazed and confused
As Woody’s story unfolds we get to know more about him and discover why he might have turned to the bottle. There are hints of a bullying wife, a failed love affair and a lifetime of regrets.
When his wife, a homemaking harridan called Kate (the wonderfully-named June Squibb) joins Woody and David on the road trip, she seems to be trying to rediscover her relationship with her husband.
In a feisty performance, June Squibb treads a fine line between bitch and bruised wife, saddened by her husband’s alcohol abuse and his lack of get-up-and-go.
Her exasperation over many years has made her prickly and despondent but there’s also a sense of her love and her desire to stand by her man.
Some of my favourite scenes in the film come when Woody stops off in his old home town of Hawthorne where he encounters family members and old friends who he hasn’t seen for years.
Most of them are no-hopers and old timers who have been left trapped in the small town, muddling on in their odd way.
There’s some hilarious and revelatory scenes which help confirm that money is the root of all evil, even though Woody hasn’t actually got his hands on any winnings yet.
Despite their scepticism, the locals also seem to buy into the belief that Woody might be good for a few bucks if he has indeed won the $1 million.
Whilst his homecoming is tinged with nostalgia, it also brings to the surface a few home truths including some comedic scenes involving Woody’s brothers and their sons.
His brothers veer between silence and inaction with the very occasional indistinct, muttered words and nods of the head. Hawthorne is the perfect sleepy retirement town for these old guys.
The family characters could turn easily into stereotypes and easy targets but in Payne’s hands, there’s something to savour about the dysfunctional nature of the family.
It’s a trick he also used to great effect with The Descendants.
Hollywood rarely seems to make films about middle America any more but Nebraska tackles it head-on.
This is authentic America captured on film – with its rich ensemble of characters, some of whom are played by non-professional actors.
The American Dream is turned on its head and punched in the gut – but in the end you come out believing in the essence of it all the same.
The film’s monochrome palette provides a texture and tone reminiscent of a documentary, which makes Woody’s story feel believable and real.
Nebraska also recalls films made in the American Depression with their windswept, stark landscapes and characters at the crossroads during a turning point in history.
Perhaps there’s a very modern parallel being made about the hopeless and forgotten souls who live in this landscape and its towns with their economic decay.
But I also got a sense that the cinematography is a throwback to a bygone America, one that we’ve somehow forgotten about and swept under the carpet.
At times Nebraska reminds me of those wonderful Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper films about the little man, the underdog, who tries to break out of the torpor of life in a small American town.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Mr Smith Goes to Washington are two of my favourites.
But unlike James Stewart, Woody isn’t an optimist at heart. One critic has described him as a forlorn “obsolete” figure, a bit like the boarded-up shops and old-fashioned town of Hawthorne.
There’s a feeling that somebody is going to call time on his life. He’s a man out of time for whom time is running out.
But I never lost faith in him which is what makes the film so watchable.
Woody reminds me of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz’s, another road movie of sorts (OK, it’s a yellow brick road) – he’s trying to find his soul but in reality he has a heart and soul within him all along.
Without stretching this comparison too far, his son David is reminiscent of the timid Lion who discovers he has more guts than he thinks.
In the end everybody discovers something about their hopes and dreams, and we go home thinking they have made a journey of self-discovery.
I’m not going to spoil the film’s ending but Nebraska does have a kind of unexpected twist that I wasn’t expecting.
The rich stories and well-crafted characters carry the film through to its finale by which time I had a tear rolling down my face.
The subject could have been drab and dour but there’s a healthy helping of deadpan comedy. Ultimately this is a film about dignity and rejuvenation.
I’ve always wanted to visit Nebraska for its big skies, expansive landscapes and small towns. Now, in a weird way, I feel I’ve been there and met its people.
The film captures the classic landscape of the mid West in all its glory – the highways, the petrol stations, the railroads, the homesteads and the diners.
If you love road movies and journeys that touch the soul, Nebraska is a film that shouldn’t be missed.
There’s a wonderful and soulful performance from Bruce Dern as Woody, a career best, as well as the fine supporting cast.
Take the road trip and discover another side of the American Dream.
Nebraska opens on Friday, 6 December at cinemas in the UK and further afield.
Images are copyright and courtesy of Paramount Pictures.