Filming in black and white within a world of colour cinematography is always a risky business. It has to feel intrinsic to the film or else you are left with monochrome monotony, never far from ‘Instagram’ levels of filter superficiality. Fortunately, Nebraska’s greyscale cinematography is entirely necessary. Bleak, grainy, muted and also darkly beautiful, it’s hard to imagine such a film being made in colour at all.
Retired mechanic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he has won one million dollars. Having failed to convince Woody that the competition is a scam, designed to sell magazines, his son David (Will Forte) agrees to take him to Nebraska where Woody can find out the unfortunate truth for himself.
En route, they stay for the weekend with an aunt in the town in which he grew up, meeting an array of family members and old friends who are unusually interested in Woody, under the impression that he is a millionaire.
The portrayal of old age and family relationships strained to breaking point by greed and miscommunication is hard-going. There are suggestions, though there is no concrete evidence, that Woody has dementia. Dern, permanently confused and disorientated, conveys this brilliantly. Surprisingly though, Alexander Payne allows the film to be lightened by the supporting characters. Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and his two nephews Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray) are hilarious, perfectly counterbalancing a difficult subject matter.
Bruce Dern’s hard-to-watch performance was a worthy winner in the Cannes Festival ‘Best Actor’ category and he deserves a nomination at the very least when it comes to Oscar season, yet the film is also desperately funny and beautifully heart-warming. Hardship is juxtaposed with hilarity and Payne’s black and white world assumes a vibrant colour by virtue of the characters inhabiting it.