(SPOILERS) There’s a feeling of structural familiarity pervading Alexander Payne’s latest film. As a storyteller he appears to favour the road trip as a means of exploring character, understandably so as the linear narrative does all the heavy lifting. Even though his films are laced with irony (often at the expense of the lead), his protagonist(s) is usually on some kind of emotional journey. It is here that Nebraska doesn’t quite follow the expected course. Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant experiences no great realisations or dramatic catharsis. For all the broadness of the events and people encountered on the old man's trip (to claim a mythical million dollar sweepstake prize), Payne’s success is in the subtler beats; morsels of understanding and insight come attached to neither profound revelations nor resounding emotional pay-offs.
That’s because Payne and writer Bob Nelson (this may not be a Payne script, but you wouldn’t know it) resist any urge they may have to open up Woody’s interior world. He remains, both admirably and frustratingly, uncommunicative. It is never clear quite how senile he is becoming (his wife Kate attests to his encroaching dysfunction, and putting him in a home is clearly a regular topic of conversation). His moments of lucidity suggest he is at least partly aware of the same thing as Kate (June Squibb) and his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk); that this is an elementary mail scam and his is a fool’s errand. As we discover, Woody doesn’t even have a great plan for what he will do with his fictional wealth; all he wants is to buy a new car and a compressor (although, touchingly, we discover there is another reason). When we first see him he is shambling along a busy road, bent (literally) on reaching his goal (he will walk to Nebraska to stake his claim if he has to), and repeated exhortations to see sense fail to put him off.
Eventually David decides to drive his father there, against the protestations of his mother. David, whose own life doesn’t amount to very much (he sells stereo systems, his sizeable girlfriend has moved out), sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with dad, aware that he may not have very long left. There’s little obvious to endear Woody to us. He’s neither approachable nor responsive, although his taciturn manner occasionally gives way to blunt or testy remarks. He’s also an alcoholic, and we learn anecdotally that he was a very poor father. On the first night of their journey Woody goes out, gets drunk and cuts his head open. The resulting delay necessitates a detour to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where his brother Ray (little Ronny’s dad, Rance Howard) still lives. Payne settles his travelling show there for much of the remainder, and the diversion yields an unforced, often humorous exploration of the way people's attitudes change when there’s a whiff of money involved.
Payne’s starting point is so absurd (then again, traversing Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawnmower was sufficiently high concept that it had to be based on fact) that this might seem on the face of it about people who don’t know any better, and those that do still don’t know that much better. But the director isn’t offering a critique, or (particularly) satirising the working class Midwestern environment (one where everyone has been hit by recession). The terrain is more basic and encompassing than that. If Payne frequently spins his scenarios to the point of caricature, he also ensures there is always something recognisable at the root of them.
As David talks to those who knew his father growing up, he realises how much he doesn’t know about him; that he was shot down over Korea, that he had an affair. But he either doesn’t raise these points (in particular, there’s no gunning for a heroic war story anecdote) or Woody grouchily deflects them. We gradually build a picture of why the elderly Woody is the way he is; that the trauma of his war experiences steered him towards the bottle, how the man who was beaten by his father turned into a not very good father himself, and why the man who couldn’t say no to people turned inwards to the point where claims on his goodwill could no longer reach him. Indeed, the possibility that he may have a fortune puts him right back where he was before; now everyone demands what he “rightfully” owes. The truths of Payne’s film may lie in the small touches, but he paints the surrounding landscape with broad strokes.
Payne tells it that he considered Bruce Dern for Woody on first reading the script, but the studio wanted a big name (to be fair, an understandable demand given whims such as black and white photography). Dern’s a great actor, generally best used when tapping into his slightly crazed visage and naturally eccentric demeanour. He’s played more than his share of bad guys, but could always be relied on to parlay their intensity with a dangerous sense of humour. It’s a quality that can be found even when he's an ostensibly good guy (Silent Running). The actor has never gone away, but he’s been relegated to supporting roles of diminishing substance as the years have worn on (Django Unchained being a recent walk-on example). His greatest part in the last quarter century is also perhaps his funniest, as ‘Nam veteran Rumsfeld in Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs.
But Nebraska calls on something much more restrained. There’s the occasional flash of Dern’s instantly recognisable caustic wit or put down (a memorable scene of one-upmanship with his son, as they search train tracks for his mislaid false teeth, and his succinct conclusions about how he came to marry Kate), but this is a role built on the eyes as windows to the soul as much as anything, so its as well Dern’s are so expressive. To some extent, it’s disappointing that the role that got him an Oscar nomination (his second, and first in 35 years) is fairly atypical, but even in introverted mode the actor’s charisma is irrepressible. And there’s something about him that, as he gets older, allows him to be more intimidating rather than less (not unlike James Coburn in that respect). A moment should also be taken to consider Dern’s prodigious nasal hair; we’re used to see his wild locks, here a shock of receding white that announces his disarray, but Payne also takes every available opportunity to position the camera up Bruce’s hooter. The results are dense and forested.
My main point of trepidation about this film was the casting of David. If anything, his role is larger than Woody’s. It’s certainly more central, and the one that aligns most with the viewer’s gaze. And they cast Will Forte, the former SNL performer. My concerns arose chiefly from the laugh-free abomination that is MacGruber (I know, it has its fans; far away from me may they remain). I wasn’t sure I’d be able to suffer him causing a stink in an otherwise decent movie. But shorn of trying and failing to be funny, Forte is a surprise. He’s very good. David is well meaning, (mostly) passive and aware that his circumstances are unfulfilling. In a sense his father’s undeterrable quest is an example to him. It would be too much to call it a galvanising force but, for all his exasperation with his father’s antics, David is just as invested in the trip (he protests that he wants to get back home, and, when he is lying on the floor attempting to sleep as his parents share a nearby bed, you completely believe him, but he doesn’t have a whole lot awaiting his immediate attention). Perhaps when Kate accuses him of being just like his father she isn’t so far from the truth. David is the giving son, concerned with his own capacity for drowning his sorrows. The difference is he has yet to close himself off. Forte’s is the reactive role, the Tom Cruise part in Rain Man if you will, and so his performance is bound to be underrated. I may not think much of his comedic skills, but he can definitely pull off the dramatic.
Bob Odendirk is also very good in the lesser role of David’s older brother. Ross has become a relative success, a news presenter on the local TV station, but his finest moments come when he divests himself of maturity as he and David react against their assumed adult positions. His fight with one of his cousins is hilariously ineffectual (on both sides). And there’s something irresistible about the sons who become kids again when they have the chance to right a wrong against their old man.
The showiest role is June Squibb’s Kate. Previously she played Jack Nicholson’s ill-fated wife in Payne’s About Schmidt, and the initial scenes suggests she’s going to bully her way through the film as a heartless harridan, constantly putting her good for nothing husband down. Yet, almost as soon as she alights from a coach in Hawthorne, we see a different side of her; the coarse vulgarian who flashes gravestones and attests how nigh-on every man in town once tried to get into her knickers. Most delightfully, and confirming that only those who really love you have the right to put you down, she comes fearsomely to Woody’s defence when extended family members are demanding their pound of flesh. It’s the movie’s most memorable scene and understandably the one that bagged her the Oscar nod.
As for the assorted family, friends and acquaintances, they’re a mix of amateurs and professionals. At times the cracks in experience show, but generally they lend a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. This is a town reeking of near destitution. Payne only references the state of the economy in passing, reflected in David’s idle cousins Cole and Bart and their moronic banter. Stacey Keach is cast to typically antagonistic type as Ed, Woody’s former business partner. Payne makes one of his few significant missteps when he has David punch him following the particularly cruel humiliation of Woody; it’s over the top and unnecessary, positioned as a jab for justice, but there’s no triumph in hitting a pensioner (no matter how tough and threatening the old goat is). One notable scene has David meet an old girlfriend of Woody’s, who works at the newspaper office. The sequence is arresting in part because of the insights it affords us into Woody and his marriage, but also because Angela McEwan’s performance and delivery is fascinating to observe; compelling and yet simultaneously artificial (and she’s no novice at the acting lark).
This all could have been merely another quirky quaint obsession of an old man as he head off to find meaning. While Nebraska has an genial pace and the conclusion is kind off upbeat in aspect, Payne refuses to submit to character arcs. Forte’s life is not really any better off, Woody is no more communicative; there’s merely a brief moment of respite. Payne also avoids the twee by presenting a real banality to this world. He undoubtedly has affection for his subjects, but what’s seen of their lives or awareness will only make you more appreciative of your own. There’s the recognisable drudgery of everyday conversation, saying absolutely nothing of significance and exaggerated to the point of near-ludicrousness; talking is just a distraction from a TV-induced trance. So there are sporadic and failed attempts at conversation, invariably involving repeated refrains on sports or cars. Rehearsed interactions are voiced; the womenfolk offer kindly pleasantries while the menfolk are unforthcoming. There’s a sense that the inability to express oneself is inevitably passed down, and each generation inevitably follows course. This comes with the static designates found in each family; all of a sudden one is in one’s twilight years repeating the same limited script. No movement is possible, and it is a state all too easy to slip into in some form.
The ramshackle familiarity of Payne’s film extends to the production side. While the anamorphic black and white photography suits the story, I can’t say I found it hugely impressive (Oscar nom or no Oscar nom). Quite possibly the lack of lustre is intentional, a means of capturing the barrenness of the landscape and these lives. Certainly, the widescreen vistas hold little impact (perhaps a consequence of the digital shoot). Likewise Mark Orton’s unadorned score. The pacing is purposefully unhurried, which perhaps tips Payne’s hat most as having made “that kind of picture” (if there is an elderly road trip subgenre). Amiable is the word.
Is this a Best Picture-worthy picture? I’d say not. It’s a lesser beast to both Payne’s previous nominees (a hat trick but no cigar?) because, while the central relationship is expertly sketched, the surrounding story isn’t sufficiently distinctive. As for the other nominations? I could quite see Nebraska going home empty-handed. Dern’s performance doesn’t hit enough colourful beats for the average voter, and I think this is one case where the career achievement award won’t happen (if it was a Best Supporting Actor nomination, it might be different). I’d bet on Squibb if not for the presence of Lupito Nyong’o and I’d go as far to suggest that Payne is the least likely to be recognised director. Original Screenplay isn’t going to happen and I’d be very surprised to see Phedon Papamichael bag the Cinematography gong.
Nebraska finds Payne developing further he familial themes the began exploring in The Descendants. As such, the distances and bonds of such relationships are the real strength here. Parents and siblings can mutually have very little in common, and may know next to nothing about each other really. But Payne locates an intractable response mechanism, whereby the protection and defence of family is demanded even when one has spent most of one’s time pointing out their failings. In an attempt to come up with a tangible end point Payne serves up something a little pat, but fortunately his leads rise above the forced neatness of these scenes. If he is to remain fresh, the director should maybe needs to shake up his storytelling style a little but there’s no doubting that he has his characterisations down to a tee. For now, they are able to carry him. Payne isn’t really interested in making grand gestures of profundity, and that’s Nebraska most satisfying quality.