Over his still relatively brief career as a director, Alexander Payne has shown a particular fondness for male characters going through major life changes. In films like Sideways or The Descendants, the focus gets placed squarely on those males that are entering or possibly still valiantly trying to cling onto their mid-life crises. In About Schmidt, he tackled the life of a man just past his prime. In Election, his protagonist was a man about to head careening into a mid-life crisis he didn’t know he was having. For his latest film, the Middle America slice-of-life story Nebraska, Payne looks at not one, but two generations of males going through a rough patch. It’s his best film to date, but it’s hard not think he could have stuck the landing a little better on this one.
Billings, Montana resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has recently come to believe that he’s won a million dollars. Far on in years and starting to go a little senile, the hard drinking man of few words sets out on foot from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his fortune from a magazine subscription offer that he might not have won. Woody’s wife (June Squibb) is at the end of her rope, and his eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) is too close to becoming a big deal on the local nightly news to be of much help. This leaves the kindly, sympathetic youngest son David (Will Forte) to try and talk some sense into his father. After not being able to get around Woody’s obstinacy, David takes some time off from his job selling home entertainment systems to drive his elderly father to Nebraska, hoping that Wally will see the light along the way.
It’s a film with a down home vibe that feels ripped straight from the pages of dog-eared Reader’s Digest that’s been read countless times by various patrons in a waiting room while their oil gets changed. And I mean that as a compliment. It’s downright charming, and devoid of condescension towards the dreamers, uneducated schemers, and old timers that move Woody’s journey along. Especially when Wally and David are forced to spend time in the last place on Earth Woody ever wanted to revisit: his hometown of Hawthorne, where his brother and his boorish nephews live. Wanting to feel some sort of recognition during his unwanted homecoming, Woody drunkenly blabs to everyone under the sun that he’s about to become a millionaire.
Therein lays the main point of interest and lynchpin for both Payne’s look at men who need something to live for and in the nuanced and believable screenwriting from first time feature writer Bob Nelson. Regardless of what the viewer think the validity of the journey is, it’s clearer that even more than money, Woody just wants some attention that he feels he hasn’t been getting. It’s years and years of frustration coming out all at once from a taciturn man clutching to one last dream to keep him alive a little while longer. He’s upset that he can’t drive himself anywhere. He grouses constantly about losing an air compressor 40 years ago to a blowhard former business partner (Stacy Keach) who he actually owes a great deal of money to. He’s livid that no one supports him. He’s only at his best when he’s pissed (angry or intoxicated), and he has no way to express to the people around him why he loves them and why he needs their help for what might be the last time in his life. He insists he doesn’t have any problems and he would prefer to be left alone to enjoy his journey in peace.
Dern does an exemplary job with such little dialogue, getting more mileage out of Woody’s quiet, introspective (or possibly dazed) moments. A scene shortly after Squibb’s character arrives on the scene in Hawthorne and she walks through the local cemetery to point out callously all the people who died is one of the best scenes in any film this year, or possibly this decade. Squibb delivers backstories of the damned and dying, making it clear that she’s suffered as a housewife long enough, and feels her life has been wasted in ways that are the polar opposites of Woody’s current wrestling with his own insuetude. Forte, wanting to appear as a pillar of strength even though his own life is a mess back home, tries to brusquely rebuff his mother’s anger, but his face conveys a man getting more and more heartbroken by the second. And Dern, quite simply hangs in the background not saying anything, trying in vain to act oblivious to the hurtful words from a woman he never loved as much as she loved him, and towards a son whose help he doesn’t think he needs.
But while Dern has deservedly been getting the lion’s share of the film’s acclaim since it debuted earlier this year at Cannes, the performances of Squibb and Forte can’t be discounted either, and are in many ways the more revelatory turns. Squibb (who previously collaborated with Payne as Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt) hasn’t been given a role like this yet; one that she can attack with gusto and sometimes justifiably misanthropic vigor. And Forte, who has comedic chops in spades, simply hasn’t had this great of a showcase for his dramatic abilities yet. He’s the son that when we get older, we are going to wish we had on our side, but one who can’t find solace in his parents for any of his own problems.
Payne fills Nebraska with these moments of quiet desperation, backed by Phedon Papamichael’s anything but pastoral looking black and white cinematography. The very colour of the film brings the viewer down to Woody’s level immediately. If the figurative colour is gone from his life, then why bother showing it at all? At the same time, it makes small town life look like a photograph that can no longer degrade past a certain point. It’s bleak, but that doesn’t mean that warm memories can no longer be gleaned from the image.
It’s a surprisingly mature work from a filmmaker who has dabbled frequently in the immature. He’s been getting better with each passing film as a craftsman, but there’s always something that doesn’t feel quite right. Here, it’s the final ten minutes where everything should logically be wrapping up, but it instead decides to deliver an oddly off putting and slightly patronizing message that backhandedly espouses the virtues of material goods. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but it feels greatly out of step with the realism of everything that came before it, and I don’t mean that in a Capra-esque way. I mean in a “Ronald Reagan/George Bush economics” sort of way. It goes out of alignment at the last second, but it doesn’t undo any of the tremendous work that came before it.