The vast landscapes that director Alexander Payne scatters through his latest work, "Nebraska," aren't just there to create artistic images. All of the emptiness and promises of a brighter tomorrow reflect the driving theme of this examination of a man's legacy. The landscapes become all that more stark and cold because of the decision by the director to present his tale in black and white.
Through a road trip sparked by a fantasy, Payne paints a portrait of how sometimes the American dream can be as elusive as a winter wind.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has received a sweepstakes letter in the mail notifying him he has won $1 million. Although everyone tries to convince him it's just a promotional ploy to get him to buy magazines, Woody is willing to walk from his home in Billings, Mont., to the prize center in Lincoln, Neb. When it's obvious that no one can shake Woody of his fool's dream, his son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive him.
The road trip becomes a journey of discovery. David has only seen his father as an alcoholic who never showed any interest in him or his brother (Bob Odenkirk). As the miles roll by, the son begins to discover the father he never knew — a man changed by his service during the Korean War, self-serving family members, a harpy wife and a kind heart of which everyone took advantage.
Writer Bob Nelson casts a harsh light on how money — or the lack of it — changes people. Woody's hometown has become a cemetery where each closed shop is another financial tombstone recounting the death of a dream. The people who still live there 40 years after Woody has moved on cling to the sanctity and sanity of the familiar as a way of facing painful realities.
Dern turns in the performance of his career with his portrayal of a father, husband and friend who is taking a serious look at what he will leave behind when he's gone. He desperately needs to believe the prize money is real because that will be a tangible reminder he can leave behind as proof he was once here.
Forte's work is the most surprising as he takes his character from an emotional cripple to an understanding and caring person. It's a sweet performance that never gets too sentimental and maintains a level tone to support the film.
The decision to show this as a black-and-white film at times feels like a gimmick. It works overall because it's a reminder that once a person's true colors are stripped away, what's left is a picture that is a variety of shades of gray. That goes to making "Nebraska" a movie that finds power when it is sweet and sentimental and softness in its most emotionally brutal moments.
"Nebraska," rated R for language. Stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach. Directed by Alexander Payne. Running time: 110 minutes. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.