We’ve all received “You’ve Won a Million Dollars” junk mail, and some of us have even responded, but naïve old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) actually drags his son David (Will Forte) on a thousand-mile road trip from Billings, Montana, to Prize Headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his cash. By the time they arrive, David has come to understand and appreciate the father he’d only known as a tight-lipped alcoholic. Dern’s filigreed interpretation of Woody—the crowning achievement of a brilliant career—slowly allows the kindness, complexity, and depth of his seemingly two-dimensional character to unfold. In this, he is aided by a meticulously chosen ensemble cast who bring humor and heartache to a screenplay whose dry, deadpan dialogue is relentlessly hilarious.
Director Alexander Payne decided to make Nebraska in black and white after Paramount agreed to fund the film, which prompted another bout of negotiations. His decision proved prophetic: Monochromatic visuals underscore the austerity of the film’s blue-collar backdrops and ramshackle towns. The stark contrast between light and shadow, which magnifies the tension of the film’s most dramatic moments, could only be achieved in black and white. Phedon Papamichael’s bold cinematography—much of it framed in vanishing point perspective—maximizes the artistry of farms and “Big Sky” landscapes, presenting us with a series of still photographs worthy of Ansel Adams.
Don’t let the absence of color fool you: Picture quality is extraordinary, its detail and sharpness achieved without excessive reliance upon edge enhancement. There is a subtle, undulating quality to the image, and the masterful use of grey scale yields a wonderfully textured visual tapestry.
Due to the intimate nature of Nebraska and its emphasis upon acting and dialogue, audio quality is unspectacular. Voices are rendered with admirable detail and naturalism (essential for capturing the subtle inflections of Dern’s “cranky old man”), and vocal articulation is excellent. The midrange-focused strings and winds of Mark Orton’s simple, wistful soundtrack are pleasant but ordinary. Presented in an uncommon three-channel implementation DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital, there’s little sonic nuance aside from some atmospheric surround and a few Foley effects.
Extras included with the Blu-ray amount to half an hour of interviews from actors and crew, much of which gives real insight into the casting and creation of this film. Given the film’s acclaim, however, some deleted scenes would have been a welcome addition here.
Unable to redeem his million-dollar certificate, Woody finds redemption of a higher kind: in his son’s esteem, his wife’s affection and, perhaps, the final gift of absolution.
Studio: Paramount, 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0
Length: 114 mins.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb