Last weekend, we finally finished watching one of the best films I have seen in weeks: Nebraska. I say finally because we had to return the first DVD to Lovefilm because it was scratched so badly it wouldn’t play. To divert from my subject for a moment, what the heck do people do with rented DVDs? We fairly regularly get disks that look as if someone has decided to give them a quick polish on the playing surface with coarse sandpaper. Anyway, luckily Lovefilm are good about sending replacements if you report errors with disks, so the following weekend, we were able to watch the film the whole way through.
The film has a deceptively simple premise: Woody, the elderly father of David and Ross, has received a ‘certificate’ telling him that he has won a million dollars, and needs to send the certificate in the mail and subscribe to some magazines in order to claim his prize. In other words, it’s an obvious piece of junk mail, but Woody is convinced that he has definitely won a million dollars, and needs to go to the office in Lincoln, Nebraska in person, because he is afraid that his ‘prize certificate’ is going to get lost in the mail. At the start of the film, we see him walking stubbornly beside the side of the road, determined to walk across a whole state to do so. When he is brought back home by the police, his younger son David reluctantly agrees to drive him to Nebraska, really just to shut him up and show him that the whole thing is a scam. The rest of the film is a kind of road movie, in which Woody and David get to know each other, after what appears to have been years of a distant relationship between them. Along the way, Woody falls and cuts his head, so the pair divert to stay for a few days with Woody’s brother and his family. Kate (Woody’s blunt-speaking wife) joins them by bus, and gradually the vultures descend as Woody tells everyone that he has won a fortune.
The film is — unusually — shot in black and white, and is visually gorgeous, with lingering shots of the wide open landscape and seemingly endless skies. It is also wonderful for rendering the beautiful, wrinkled and time-etched faces of the characters in the film, many of whom are elderly. It is strongly character-driven, but extremely funny in places. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the business around the air compressor is wonderful, and there is a glorious scene set in Woody’s brother’s living room. Earlier in the film, Woody and David have diverted from their planned route slightly to see Mount Rushmore, which Woody doesn’t think much of, commenting that “it doesn’t look finished”. In the living room, there are ten or so men (mostly late middle-aged or older), all watching a football game on TV, and facing the camera. Their impassive faces look uncannily like the figures on Mount Rushmore, and there is a brilliantly-observed conversation (about cars, naturally), throughout which nobody drags their eyes away from the screen.
The characters are terrific. Woody (played by Bruce Dern) gradually reveals his character throughout the film, both to us and to his sweet but rather frustrated son. Kate (played superbly by June Squibb) is a hoot. In the DVD extras, June describes Kate as just opening her mouth and letting whatever she’s thinking fall out, and that is certainly true. She doesn’t mince her words, and her lines are some of the funniest in the film.
It’s also a very sweet and warm film, without being in any way sentimental. It acknowledges that real life is hard, and that people say and do hurtful things, but there’s a warmth between the characters that manages to get through this and tentatively build something better. It’s a wonderful film — a feel-good film, despite the fact that it initially looks a bit gloomy — and I heartily recommend it.