'Nebraska' Sets a Destination, but Its Power Is the Journey

Alexander Payne’s latest film offers a panorama of people and faces, magnificent scenery and somber locales, and a fine balance of comedy and drama.

Nebraska Directed by Alexander Payne; written by Bob Nelson; with Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Rance Howard, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan

In exquisite black and white, on a CinemaScope screen that seems eager to embrace the flat landscape traversed by the two heroes, while also allowing that landscape to break through the cinematic frame, “Nebraska” captures an America that is both within and outside of time. As portrayed by director Alexander Payne in his sixth feature, the American heartland – if it is really a heart – is both pulsating and frozen.

The two heroes of “Nebraska” are a father and son. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a cranky old drunk, whose dementia is dotted with sudden moments of clarity. He receives notice in the mail that he has won $1 million; all he has to do to collect it is to go from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. The notice is, of course, misleading, part of a magazine subscription marketing scheme. But Woody believes it is real, and he is determined to get to Nebraska even if he has to walk there, despite the best efforts of his son, David (Will Forte) and his 
cantankerous wife, Kate (June Squibb), to persuade him otherwise. When David, who feels his life is going nowhere and his relationship with his father is equally stuck, realizes that Woody is resolved to make the trip, he decides to go along with his father’s delusion and take him to Nebraska, so Woody can see for himself that he is chasing a pipe dream.

What happens to Woody and David on their journey, on which they are eventually joined by Kate and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), David’s older and more settled brother, is the subject of Payne’s lovely, delicate and poignant movie. Like some of his other works – “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” – “Nebraska” is a road movie with a clearly defined destination, but it is also a picture in which people stop more than they travel. Much of the movie takes place in a Nebraska town where Woody’s brother and his family live; they have not seen him in a long time and accept without question that he is a millionaire. Although David tries to explain to them, too, that the money is only an illusion, he is reluctant to shatter the dream that is driving his father on and perhaps filling him with new energy.

“Nebraska” is the first Alexander Payne’s movie written not by Payne himself but by screenwriter Bob Nelson. However, it is entirely a Payne film in its spirit, style and nature: it is simple, but in a sophisticated way that serves its emotional and structural complexity. This is a film of people and faces, of magnificent scenery and somber locales – all the towns in it look 
equally dreary and empty, as though all their people have left. It leaves behind the memorable image of the heavy sky weighing down on them all (kudos are due to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also shot “Sideways” and Payne’s next-to-last movie, “The Descendants”). There is a fine balance of comedy and drama, both of which serve the overall sense of melancholy without succumbing to a sentimental nostalgia for the America shown on the screen.

At times “Nebraska” feels like a fairy tale that is not really a fairy tale at all, since only Woody believes in it. This aspect of the film provides its emotional heft and justifies the visual elements Payne has chosen, which occasionally make watching “Nebraska” feel like leafing through an album of black-and-white photos. The movie clearly has something to say about America and the loss of its dreams, but this message feels secondary to Payne’s love for his characters – whom he nevertheless does not romanticize – and to the sharpness of the gaze he directs at them and at their surroundings.

That Woody and David grow closer as the movie unfolds will not come as a surprise; it is a process familiar to us from many other American films. But Payne sketches it with extreme delicacy, steering clear of melodrama. The movie’s concluding gesture, which might have come across as forced, transfers it to a realm where reality and imagination blend, in keeping with the film’s own main themes.

Role of a lifetime

And what, finally, would “Nebraska” be without its actors, some of them amateurs? June Squibb is wonderful as Woody’s wife, delivering every line as though it were a cannonball shot from her round body. We’ve seen Will Forte mostly as a comedian (“Saturday Night Live”), but even in his comic performances there was a sadness in his eyes (which many of the best comedians have), and his role as David is restrained, modest and precise. The movie, however, belongs to Bruce Dern, an icon of the American cinema that emerged from the ashes of classic Hollywood. Though Dern never became as big a star as some of the other actors of his time, such as Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, he has always been a fine actor – whether as the participant in a cruel dance marathon in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” or as Jane Fonda’s husband returning from Vietnam to find his wife changed in Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home.” But his roles to date have mostly been supporting ones, whereas in “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne has given him the lead – and with it, perhaps, the role of a lifetime. “Nebraska” has many excellent qualities, but foremost among them is the way it captures this actor, with his long body and expressive face, at the height of his ability.

AP