Hailed as an American masterpiece, Nebraska is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb) and Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael). The film was also named one of the best movies of the year by the AFI, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, New York Times, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Huffington Post, Slate, the National Board of Review and numerous critics associations.
The film tells the captivating story of a father (Bruce Dern) and his adult son (Will Forte) who embark on a journey to claim a million-dollar prize; what begins as a fool's errand becomes a search for the road to redemption.
With its quaint view of life in the Midwest and its melancholy characters, I'm actually a bit shocked that 'Nebraska' has gotten all the Oscar love it's received. Which is not to say it's not a very good movie – it's just not the kind of movie one would expect to garner all the rave reviews and attention. Of course, much of the fanfare is due to Bruce Dern, whose performance here is certainly one of the best of his career. But it's actually the other lead of 'Nebraska' that makes the movie worth seeing. Yes, that's right, former SNL alum and MacGruber star Will Forte shows a knack for drama here that makes you wonder if comedy was the wrong choice for him. He's very, very good in this.
If you haven't heard about the plot already, 'Nebraska's storyline is rather simple and not particularly original. An aging - and showing signs of early onset dementia – Woody Grant (Dern) insists that he's won a million dollars after getting one of those letters in the mail that claims he is a winner (he misses the small print about 'if your number matches our winning number'). So he's desperate to get from his home in Billings, Montana, to the prize center in Lincoln, Nebraska – even having to be picked up by the police as the movie opens trying to walk there on his own.
Woody's son, David (Forte), at first tries to convince his father of the truth, but after Woody comments one too many times about how Woody doesn't really have anything going on in his life to stop him from taking him to Lincoln, David relents and agrees to drive his father there – much to the chagrin of his mother, and Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb). This sets up the basic 'road picture' aspect of the movie, which – like most road pictures – is less about the destination than what happens along the way. In 'Nebraska', it's a family (and old friends/enemies) reunion for Woody in the town where he grew up, which is also in Nebraska.
Dern's performance here is a joy to watch, as he plays a man who so clearly wants to get more/be more than what he already is. The lottery letter seems to be Woody's way out of a created life that he is less than happy with. There's a huge difference between the scenes where Dern is getting to follow his dream of winning the lottery (happy and chatty) and those where he's forced to do things (like visit with his brother's family) he obviously has no desire to do. Just watch how Woody's mood changes when Kate arrives to join them in Woody's hometown. He completely regresses. Is it just a relapse of the dementia or actually his reaction to dealing once again with his overbearing wife?
Even with Dern's acting here, 'Nebraska' isn't half as good as it turns out to be without Will Forte, who gets the least 'juicy' part (he's basically asked to be comedy-free here, playing the 'straight man' throughout), but serves as the anchor of the movie as the character who is most relatable to the viewer. As with many father/son movies of this type, David Grant thinks he knows the man his father was, but he actually has no idea. While Woody spends the movie believing the fantasy he has created in his mind, David spends the movie deconstructing his own one he has created about who he thought his father was.
'Nebraska' has a familiar tone to it that I've seen before and couldn't quite put my finger on until I thought about it. I thought at first perhaps it reminded me of director Alexander Payne's Sideways, his earlier film that also involved a road trip. Then I realized that 'Nebraska' isn't as close in comparison to that movie as it is to David Lynch's wonderful 'The Straight Story', which also featured a cross-country trek of an aging man through the heartland of America. So chances are good, if you're a fan of Lynch's work in that movie, 'Nebraska' is something that you might find equally appealing.
At its heart, 'Nebraska' is a character-driven film with a simple story, but some great acting. It's not a flashy or showy movie (although some of the cinematography is wonderful and only enhanced by the black and white photography) and one that takes its sweet old time unraveling (what you call 'slow', I call 'savory'). It's also perhaps Alexander Payne's most realistic movie, as he seems to have traded in some of the 'jokey' humor that was part of his earlier films for a more naturalistic, human feel to his storytelling.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nebraska' travels to home video in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The discs are housed in an eco-friendly keepcase, with the Blu-ray (oddly) on the inside left and the DVD on the inside right. An insert contains the code for one's choice of either an UltraViolet or iTunes digital copy of the movie. A slipcover matching the artwork of the keepcase slick slides overtop.
There are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray; however, viewers will be asked to first make a language selection before the disc goes to the main menu. The menu consists of a still photo with menu selections along the bottom of the screen. The DVD, on the other hand, is front-loaded with trailers for 'Noah', The Wolf of Wall Street, 'Labor Day', and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. While the DVD doesn't contain any bonus features, it does have an additional previews selection on the main menu that leads to trailers for A.C.O.D, Adore, and the four front-loaded trailers again.
'Nebraska' is one of those rarest of Hollywood releases: a movie that has been shot digitally (on Arri Alexa cameras), but rendered and released in black and white. However, since the Arri Alexa doesn't produce the grain that director Alexander Payne felt was essential to the look of his movie, cinematographer Phedon Paramichael actually filmed grain separately then had it added over the digital images shot by the Arri Alexa. The result is a movie that both has the sharpness of digital video, but still manages to keep the 'warm' look of film.
The details and different shades of the black and white scale that show up in the image here are so varied that it almost seems wrong to call 'Nebraska' a 'black and white' movie. In addition to depth that seems to go on forever in many shots, the level of detail that can be seen in the characters faces is just amazing in black and white. Virtually every crack and wrinkle in Bruce Dern's face, as well as every hair in his scraggly beard and whispy hair can be made out. It's amazing just how much more you can 'see' in 'Nebraska's B&W high-def picture that would probably have gone unnoticed had this movie been shot in color.
In terms of glitches or defects, no obvious ones are present. Occasionally, the added grain looks a little more digital and a little less natural than it should (even though it's not digitally produced grain), but 'Nebraska' is close enough to reference-quality to give it a perfect score in the video department.
There's nothing fancy about the soundtrack in this dialogue-driven movie, nor is there anything fancy about the audio provided here – an English 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track that makes up in crispness and clarity what it lacks in terms of directionality or immersiveness.
Virtually all of the spoken dialogue comes from one's center speaker, while the right and left speakers are used for ambient and background sounds. When composer Mark Orton's score kicks in, it can be heard from a combination of all three speakers. Balance is decent throughout, although the musical score always sounds louder than the spoken word (but the two never play over each other, so there isn't a problem with dialogue ever being drown-out). Obviously, this isn't the kind of track that one is going to use to show off their set-up, but it feels right for the tone and old-fashioned look of the movie.
In addition to the 3.0 DTS-HD track, the Blu-ray also contains 3.0 Dolby Digital tracks in French, Spanish, and German, as well as an English Audio Description Track. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and German.
The only bonus feature on this release is exclusive to the Blu-ray, and is detailed in our 'HD Bonus Content' section that follows.
There's nothing deep or complex about 'Nebraska', yet it manages to reel you in and move you on the simplest of human levels. There's no 'showy' acting here, but rather characters that feel very real and relatable. I suppose one could also make the argument that there's nothing particularly original about 'Nebraska' either, as we've seen dozens of great movies about sons coming to gain a better understanding of their fathers. However, a well-made movie is a well-made movie and a well-acted movie is a well-acted movie, regardless of how fresh the storyline feels, and 'Nebraska' is certainly both of those things. My guess is some will love this movie and some will be scratching their head wondering what all the fuss is about. So while I'm giving 'Nebraska' a hearty recommendation, it might not be a bad idea to rent this one first before making a purchasing decision.