Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — Nebraska (2013)
Alexander Payne is one of my favorite directors. I have loved all five of his previous features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents), and Nebraska is yet another gem to add to his filmography. He has a gift for getting incredible performances from his actors, whether they’re well known stars like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney, or character actors who you might never have seen before. He is known for finding non-actors to populate the bit parts in his movies, to give the settings more realism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the smaller roles in this were filled with locals, too. He does a great job in each of his films blending comedy and drama; typically there’s at least one scene of riotous comedy, as well as a significant dramatic moment toward the end that takes your breath away. Nebraska has both of these scenes, and lots more.
Shot in stunning black-and-white, Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a 70-something alcoholic who receives a letter in the mail claiming he is the recipient to a million-dollar prize. Thinking it’s the truth, he starts to make the long trek between Michigan and Nebraska by foot, until his son David (Will Forte) elects to drive him. David and his mother Kate (June Squibb) know the letter is bogus, but David doesn’t care; he looks at this trip as one of the last he will ever have with his aging father. They stop in their old hometown a couple hundred miles before Lincoln, and of course get bombarded by everyone when they mistakenly think that Woody has won the prize money. In the process, David discovers more about his father than he ever could have imagined.
The film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but arguably its most deserving nomination of all didn’t happen. Yes, Bruce Dern is magnificent in the lead, giving his character a signature walk, a jaded dip of the head, a couple of blinks in almost every shot that tell the audience he’s only partway present. Yes, June Squibb is a hoot as his wife, offering the most laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue in the movie, especially in a perfectly executed scene when she tells off members of her extended family. But there is one actor who holds the movie together, who gives it the heart and soul, and that’s Will Forte. Naturally, that’s a sentence I never expected to ever write.
Payne likes to gives all sorts of actors chances (Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, for example, were pretty low on the D-list before he gave them career-best roles in Sideways), and it was a bit of inspired genius to give Forte, known for his wild comedy on SNL and in films like MacGruber, a totally ordinary dramatic role, one that essentially carries the whole movie. He is a revelation here, totally convincing as a 30-something man whose life has grown stale in work and relationships and who sees this bogus letter as a way to spend time with his dad.
All of the performances are stellar. Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk are also solid here. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone!) are scene-stealers as a pair of lazy brothers. Finally, an actress named Angela McEwan, who plays an old flame of Woody’s, has one superb scene about halfway through the movie, reminiscing about the man she wanted to marry, which is followed in the end by a brief moment that was moving enough to bring tears to my eyes. With an emotional stare, and no words, McEwan says so very much. Amazing.
It should be noted how thrilling it was to see a modern film up on the screen shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white. How many B&W movies do we get a year? One, maybe two, if we’re lucky. The Coen Brothers got to shoot one in 2001 with The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Steven Spielberg famously chose it for Schindler’s List. There is a haunting quality to black and white that color can never give, and I loved its use of it here. The same way Woody Allen used B&W to give a dream-like quality to the city he loves in Manhattan, Payne uses it to show the vast and empty landscapes of the mid-west. Black and white ultimately makes a movie feel timeless, and it is a tool that enhances the dramatic power of this movie. I hope this film’s success will inspire more directors to use black-and-white to tell their stories.
Watching Like a Writer
The road trip story. It’s been done a gazillion times, in film and in novels. It’s an easy way to tell a Quest narrative, characters going after something, where they begin in one place, literally and figuratively, and end in another place, literally and figuratively. Probably my favorite road trip movie is Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a comedy of friendship that has one of the most tender endings ever. Nebraska is another brilliant film that uses the road trip narrative, blending comedy and drama in a father-son story that ultimately isn’t so much about the destination but more about the characters themselves. I’m in the middle of revising a road trip story right now actually, a horror-thriller that is a whole lot more Mad Max: Fury Road than it is Nebraska, but no matter what genre you’re working in, a road trip for your characters can allow for great conflict and consistent raising of the stakes.
Pitch a one-sentence logline about a potential novel you could write about characters taking a road trip. What would be the genre? How would you put your own spin on the story?