It’s increasingly clear from watching Alexander Payne’s films that he has certain preoccupations, most notably men on a search for something, both physically and emotionally/mentally, and his home state of Nebraska. Of his six feature films, four are set in Nebraska, and all feature some kind of journey. His latest feature Nebraska, although not scripted by Payne, feels a bit like someone trying to ape the director’s foci. Though it doesn’t reach the heights of About Schmit or Sideways, it certainly fairs better than The Descendants, whose praise I felt to be majorly overwrought.
There are two aspects that give this film something, the first being the performance of Bruce Dern. The actor, who’s been working in the industry for 54 years, gives what may be his best performance in all that time as Woody Grant. Woody is the alcoholic, elderly father who is determined to make his way from Montana to Nebraska to claim the million dollars he believes he’s won in a sweepstakes. After he attempts to walk there several times, his son David (Will Forte) finally relents and agrees to take him there, in part to spend what little time he my have left with a father who cared more about drinking that his own family. On the way they stop in the town that they grew up in, taking in a family reunion, and allowing David to discover more about how Woody became who he is, and maybe why they had moved away in the first place.
Dern masterfully makes a character who really is difficult to like open to empathy, not just pity. You’re never sure to what extent Woody’s ignorance of his surroundings is dementia or a wilful removal from the world after being beaten down by life. So often his eyes are downcast as he shuffles along, but once in a while he will lift them up and wide and the whites will fill with light and feeling. He’s a broken man, surly, stubborn and unresponsive but Dern manages to make us root for him in the end.
The other actors don’t get much of a look in. June Squibb plays Woody’s hectoring wife, and digs some fun moments from the classic ‘old people saying whatever they want because they just don’t care any more’ mine, but too often the laughter is ‘at’ rather than ‘with’. Will Forte tampers his usual energy to play the straight man, to act as our entry into this world, but his delivery can often seem too rehearsed, especially in the more emotive scenes.
Payne seems to have mixed feelings about his home state. He shoots it lovingly, but populates it with many caricatures. After much wrangling with the studio Payne was able to film in black and white, and his choice is certainly vindicated here, the second area where the film stands out. The bare Nebraskan landscape, both its natural and man-made features, is given a timeless and poetic quality by the removal of colour, and allows its appreciation, but not its foregrounding. The boarded up ghost towns of the Midwest are pictured with a sadness for times gone by. That small town community feeling at first seemed to be missed, but it’s soon given a sour bite as the townsfolk are portrayed as small-minded, pretty, ignorant or greedy. The Midwest is dying and you can’t be sure of Payne’s feelings on it. Road movies can allow the surroundings to pull focus at the expense of character, and it’s just a shame that Nebraska wasn’t filled with more interesting, less stereotypical ones.
Overall Nebraska fails to display the wit or perceptiveness of Payne’s earlier films, and while the finale is a nice touch, there is too much sourness left from earlier scenes. It’s Dern’s performances that lifts this from being a forgettable diversion.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Distributed by: Roadshow Films
Running time: 115 min