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Charles Bukowski said: ‘Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.’
This might be the case with Alexander Payne’s 2013 American black-and-white road comedy-drama: Nebraska. A CGI and colour free zone it relies instead on character relationships, and real life chances taken and lost.
Sentimental from the off-set, we see Dern’s character is stripped back too. With end of years frailty taking hold, he looks for purpose, legacy and something to leave behind where there’s nothing. He has a brutal and beautiful realness. There’s a curtness that comes from a person in these bitter last few days. As a life-hardened and drained old septuagenarian he carries the plot with fire in his eyes. Dern is this part; both in voice and aesthetic. Even his hair shows a bitter honesty that comes with realising your end of days and life’s hard journey.
There’s a bleak lonely emptiness throughout. No one gets along or interacts in a seen closeness. There’s no room for smiles, hugs or caresses. Their lives are unhappy as we observe a real pointlessness in them and their realisation of it. This is like eaves dropping on a family fight with the resulting heavy silence that follows. As past resentments and baggage are laid bare it’s a perfect balance of cringe-worthiness and laughs.
Like in Payne’s ‘Sideways’, there’s humour in the beautiful spaces he creates between exchanges and in harsh realities of life. Alcoholism, possible PTSD and Alzheimer’s are used as personality traits without dominating the character play and relationships. Instead, Payne’s themes on relationships between people, each other and their alcohol, show it both enhancing and deteriorating in equal measure. It exposes, digests and airs resulting issues again and again in raw exchanges and insights, sad and laughable in their realism.
Towards the end, the closing scene instills beautifully both a tear and a smile, held in perfect poetic balance.
Nebraska was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where Dern won the Best Actor Award and was also nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Dern, Best Supporting Actress for Squibb, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.