The monochrome lives of heartland dreamers are etched into the black-and-white landscape of Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska. Offering bleak tableaus of Americans living among the clutter of ancient regrets and hopeful fantasies, the picture is anything but grim, thanks to Payne’s generous regard for both the comic and poignant potential of his characters. The movie ambles stoically forward on the shoulders of longtime veteran character Bruce Dern who, as Woody, the determined winner of a phony $1 million dollar sweepstakes, delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
The entire film hinges on Woody’s ridiculous mission to get from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he is convinced his winnings are waiting for him. Undeterred by his grumpy wife (June Squibb), unwilling to take no for an answer from his exasperated son, David (Will Forte), Woody plans to walk to Lincoln until David reluctantly agrees to drive him, stopping along the way to visit family and old friends. The ensuing odyssey presents a kind of diorama of rural American existence, where a lifetime of hard work in small towns results in hard faces and small achievements.
Relatives speak to one another in spare, laconic codes. Gossip passes for conversation. Debts are never forgiven and grudges are held forever. The mundane rituals of cemetery visits, Sunday football and tavern karaoke offer routine entertainment. Houses are flecked with chipped paint, doors are begrimed with decades of fingerprints, garages house the detritus of missed opportunities. Main Street blinks with the neon of a couple of bars before it rolls up for the night. The treeless hills and flat farmland vistas suggest both infinite space and limited horizons.
Payne captures these details in shades of grey, stitching them together with old school dissolves and screen wipes, all of it set to a plaintive soundtrack. The sneaky thrill of this picture is how he finds a way to wring laughter, pathos and a few dogged kernels of truth out of this minimalist environment. He doesn’t make fun of these people, but he renders their stolid existence and Woody’s quixotic pilgrimage with an absurdist eye.
Woody and his family share a quiet resignation to the ways in which they are dysfunctional. He’s been a neglectful drunk, his son David is stuck in a dead-end job, another son is a small-market TV anchorman pushing late middle age and his wife is a cranky, unrelenting cynic. Squibb, who had a small part in the Payne’s About Schmidt, plays the role with a nervy and hilarious conviction. She’s tremendous, as is Stacy Keach as a treacherous old friend. Forte, a veteran of Saturday Night Live, is blessed with a loopy, lopsided expression, which he uses to great effect when confronted by Woody’s cantankerous impulses.
Dern made his career playing sociopaths and tightly wound crooks, employing an arsenal of mannered tics that made him easy to pigeonhole. But he’s never had a part like this. There is a sly, knowing undercurrent to his Woody. He wants to soothe his conscience by making amends, but he has no idea how to go about it. No wonder, Payne seems to be saying.
Woody’s entire frame of reference rests within the margins of the unexamined life, confined between the borders of small town preoccupations. The director neither condemns nor exalts Woody’s quest. He merely wants to show us, with splendid compassion, how a man like that goes about searching for a few slivers of redemption and self-respect.
This review first appeared in Rustin Thompson's blog The Restless Critic.