With each new Alexander Payne film, I wonder what manner of offbeat, achingly sad insight into the human condition he will offer next. Nebraska has a father/son road movie dynamic, and as such succeeds admirably within the Payne oeuvre.
Shot in beautiful widescreen monochrome that displays bleak mid-West landscapes to stunning effect (it needs a big screen), the film is anchored by a remarkable performance from the legendary Bruce Dern, playing aging, booze-addled Woody Grant. Convinced he has won a million dollars after being sent a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing letter, Woody is determined to make the journey from Montana to Nebraska to claim the money – even if he has to walk (his driving licence has been revoked). Reluctantly Woody’s somewhat estranged younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive his father to Nebraska, knowing full well he almost certainly hasn’t won anything. Along the way, he gradually gets to discover things he never knew about his father, particularly when they pass through the town he grew up in.
Although a downbeat, melancholy piece, Nebraska is shot through with warmth and dark humour. Like Payne’s other work, this is a slow burn piece that requires patience, but it rewards the viewer by gradually getting under the skin in subtle, profound and moving ways. The film isn’t just about the rekindling of a father/son relationship either, but also touches on themes of small town racism, economic ruin in the mid-West, and how quickly honourable military service is disregarded and forgotten (even if it resulted in post traumatic stress disorder).
That might make Nebraska sound heavy and depressing, but I actually found it life-affirming and surprisingly funny. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but Alexander Payne is one of the true auteur directors currently working, and he is at the peak of his powers with this film.