As director Alexander Payne has grown more complex in his storytelling over the years, so have his unusually driven characters. Some might argue that Payne’s films feel a tad too convoluted. But even those living steadfastly in this camp should loosen up their expectations and be prepared to be surprised by Nebraska, which could be consider Payne’s purest (and most melancholy) work yet.
It’s no wonder Payne chose to shoot this minimalist film in black and white. The movie offers a rather stark portrait of a man in his twilight years, following Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who has fallen so far down a spiral of complacency, his only hope for a worthwhile future is some vague promise from a Publisher’s Clearing House-like sweepstakes letter.
Dern plays a man so unkempt, his nose hair has grown to become part of his beard. Woody seems to have long given up on life until he receives the fateful sweepstakes packet in the mail. His wife Kate (June Squibb taking misanthropy to grand passive-aggressive heights) and his son David (Will Forte playing restrained with wounded heart) can only roll their eyes. So Woody decides to walk to the address on the envelope in Lincoln, Nebraska from his ramshackle Billings, Montana home with his “winner’s certificate” in hand.
The bleak wintery landscape Woody tries to shamble across — until David catches up with him on several occasions — provides the perfect metaphor for this zombie of a father. David ultimately caves and offers to drive him. Along the way, mom joins the trip, as does their second son Ross (Bob Odenkirk). As they pack into David’s vintage Subaru Forester, the road becomes much more than a route to redemptive treasure. It becomes a sort of time machine, as they meet close relatives who have become distant and encounter old family friends who still hold a grudge.
Working from a script by newcomer Bob Nelson, Nebraska has a darker tone than usual for Payne. But, as ever, Payne knows how to linger on a reaction shot for levity, especially if it’s a dim, open-mouthed face. The film is mostly about the performances. Squibb particularly rises to grand task, timing her denouncements of those alive and dead with grim humor. Dern infuses Woody with a subtle fragility below a stubborn, cantankerous exterior. The pain of regret weighs heavy on this man, but Dern keeps his emotions buried as deep as possible. One cannot forget praise for Forte, who must play a sort of straight-man to his scenery-chewing elders. In the end, the viewer will come to understand the relationship that so closely binds this family together.
Because the performances are so strong and, as usual, the characters so soulful, it seems a shame that Payne succumbs to a temptation for retribution for David, during one brief scene toward the end. He reaches too far beyond his character. But it’s a slight misstep in an otherwise modest film. Even when the filmmakers must offer a resolution that some might fault for too much sugar coating, there is a subtle flip side that what has happened is only a bitter-sweet bandage on the inevitable. As he did with his last film, The Descendants, Payne does not resort to sentimental hokum but offers a poignant portrait of aging with the burden of regret.