Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska has a searing emotional honesty and a beautiful cinematic sweep that make it one of the year’s best efforts! The director of The Descendants and Sideways has once again probed the emptiness and heartache hidden within his characters and managed to come away with some quiet redemption.
Bob Nelson’s taut and unsentimental screenplay tells the story of Woody Grant, an aging, alcoholic, addled father who latches on to the fantasy of having won a million dollar publishers’ clearing house prize that will transform his life, if he can only go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. Ultimately, his journey, which takes him back to the town of his youth becomes less a quest for wealth than it does a desperate search for self-respect and a connection with his sons, especially David, who sees the trip as an opportunity to repair decades of estrangement. Nelson’s script is paced deliberately; his dialogue is sparse but pregnant with subtle wit, and the story unfolds with a measured understatement that amplifies its impact.
Shot in black and white, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography lends the tale a gritty epic look – almost something out of the dust bowl era. The long shots of the barren prairies, the shabby houses, and endless highway, the run-down small towns, motels, and bars all resonate with the theme of loneliness and alienation.
Payne elicits from his actors performances of great simplicity and honesty. In the Grant family members, we understand the desolation – and the decency – of small lives lived in small towns, of diminished hopes and dreams long blown away by the prairie winds. Indeed, it is the contrast of Woody Grant’s crazy pipedream and the csolution implemented by David to redeem their journey and restore his father’s sense of self-respect that creates the film’s achingly satisfying ending.
As Woody Grant, Bruce Dern turns in a brllliant performance. Disheveled, unshaven, his eyes vacant, he stumbles through his life with the pathetic tenacity of a Willy Loman. As his shrewish wife, Kate, June Squibb finds just the right blend of acerbic harangue and secret tenderness, and her sharp-tongued one-liners give the film much of its humor. Bob Odenkirk is note perfect as son Ross, the small town television anchorman, who is torn between his roots and his desire to escape them. But it is Will Forte, who turns in the most surprisingly powerful performance of all as David – potent in its completely unassuming straightforwardness and restraint. His sad, soulful eyes speak of impatience and compassion, of dreams long ago dashed, and yet of the wisdom to create hope from refashioned reality.
The remainder of the supporting cast complements the principals perfectly without ever descending into stereotypes. Mary Louise Wilson is a folksy Aunt Martha; Tim Driscoll and Devon Ratray are hilarious as the burly, dim cousins Bart and Cole; Angela McEwan makes a kind and gentle former flame Peg Nagy, and Stacy Keach is insinuating as small town bully Ed Pegram.
Like Payne’s previous films, the work is an ensemble effort. The cast coalesces into an organic whole; characters’ identities merge with the narrative, and the narrative comes alive in the landscape. For it is Nebraska, itself, (Payne’s birthplace) which dominates the film; the rambling prairie with its bold linear planes becomes a metaphor for the tenacity of life. Like the desolate souls who inhabit this land, it – and they – must find the strength to go on.