Alexander Payne is a man who is knowing for making a very particular type of film; films about middle-aged men in crisis, and as a result of this there’s something of a worry that any new film he makes could be doing nothing more than retreading old ground. Fortunately, in the case of his latest effort, Nebraska, such qualms are resoundingly dispelled, and he’s crafted what is, in my opinion, the best film in his canon.
It tells the rather simply story of a man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), trying to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect $1 million he believes he’s won, and roping his reluctant son, David (Will Forte), along for the ride. There is of course much more to the film than this alone, it explores the fractured dynamics of the Grant family, the deteriorating health of Woody, his uneasy relationship with his wife (June Squibb) and sons (Forte and Bob Odenkirk) as well as the very nature of being on the road.
There is something almost metaphorical about the treatment of the road and travel in Nebraska, they are not just covering distance and going to Lincoln but instead, in a way that is perhaps cliche of road movies and road novels (it brings to mind the Kerouacian sense of self discovery in works like On the Road), they also discover themselves, as well as each other along the way. When Woody and David set off together, their relationship is uneasy to say the least, they scarcely speak a word to each other – although that can be said of Woody throughout the film – and David’s resentment is not masked, but perhaps the reason for this is that the two men seem to know nothing about one another, and, more importantly, neither do the audience. To begin with, Woody is unlikeable, he is distant and cold towards his family and gaining any attachment to him is almost impossible given he never seems entirely present. But as the film goes on and David – and by extension the audience – discover more about him and this cold man is peeled away to reveal, in his place, someone almost tragic, a point truly brought home when David says to someone else (in reference to Woody) “he just believes what people tell him,” and the power behind that simple statement is that it’s true, for better or worse, Woody believes what he hears.
Dern’s performance as Woody is nothing short of masterful, if just because he can do so much with so little. Woody is a man who is clearly in the early stages of something like dementia, and by seemingly doing nothing; looking off into the distance, standing away from everyone else, Dern effortlessly embodies a man who is clearly not entirely there, both physically and mentally. His dialogue is sparse throughout the film, more often than not he simply “yes,” “no,” or “what?” and the testament to the strength of his performance is that he can say so much with so little. When Woody, David, Ross and Kate (Woody’s wife) are back in the town where Woody grew up, they visit the house he lived in as a child, and in there, his past is brought to light in a way that is so calm that it becomes more powerful. When he is in the room he and his young brother slept in, he is asked if he was there when his brother died (he died very young). Woody simply says “I was there.” In his parent’s old bedroom, he says “this was my parent’s room. I’d get whipped if I was caught in here. Guess there’s no-one to whip me now.” These few lines create such a strong emotional response, as well as a connection with Woody’s character, that they show just how good Dern’s performance is, it’s understated and restrained nature in no way weakens it’s power. The same can be said for Forte as David; although he has more dialogue and is generally more animated than his father, it is the quieter moments, those in between vitriolic lines of dialogue, that highlight how good Forte is in the role. Squibb is generally more eccentric than the two men, more outspoken and chiefly the most comical of the major characters; her performance is full of moments that lighten the film and inject it with an almost infectious energy.
Infectious is also the best way to describe Woody’s resolve to get to Lincoln. Even though the audience are more than aware that there will not be $1 million waiting for him, it’s impossible not to will him on to his final destination. Besides, the money isn’t even the most important reason for Woody’s travelling to Lincoln. Once again, this comes back to the seemingly metaphorical treatment of travel in the film; the more distance between Woody and his house, or the town he grew up in, the more alive he seems to become; travelling for Woody isn’t just about the prize, it’s about finding something to hold on to, some energy to inject his life with. As he says “I ain’t got long left,” and it seems he’ll be damned before he spends it sitting around in the same house day after day.
It’s not a perfect film by any means; there are issues with the pacing. This isn’t to say that the film takes a long time to get going, it moves deftly and at almost two hours in length, sails by. Instead, it takes a while to truly ‘click,’ or at least it did with me; it wasn’t until Woody’s return to his hometown that I began to love the film; it’s early scenes almost have a detachment to them that, while seemingly done by design, could make it difficult for an attachment to be formed to characters later on, when it’s needed the most.
Perhaps the most effective dramatic device in Nebraska is the way that it balances humour and pathos, both in its writing and characters (Squibb’s animated comedy works as an excellent counterpoint to the dry, stoic elements on the surface of Dern’s performance). What’s most effective about the humour in Nebraska is that it’s used, in that age old way, as a defence mechanism. Early on in their travels, Woody and David go to a bar and have a beer together. The conversation is awkward, and stilted, and instead of being serious, the two men tell jokes, but it is when the laughter stops that the reality of their respective situations set in. David reveals to his father that his girlfriend of two years left him, as well as speaking up about Woody’s alcoholism. Woody of course, gives as good as he gets, before leaving and spitting out to his son “you can’t tell me what to do, cocksucker.”
Stunningly shot in black and white, Nebraska is very much an exercise in restraint, less being more. With Dern’s faultless performance at the center, the film is about so much more than just Woody’s mythical million; it is about fathers and sons, the past as a prison, the allure of the road and a straightforward refusal to let go. Quietly tragic and triumphant, with superb performances from the ensemble (Bob Odenkirk continues to impress as an actor beyond simply being Saul in Breaking Bad), Nebraska is the best film Alexander Payne has made yet, and one of the strongest of the year.