Director Alexander Payne has proven himself a master at blending comedy with drama. His last film, The Descendants, was one of my favorites of 2011 and I was eagerly awaiting for his newest project. His follow-up, Nebraska, is another worthy picture in Payne’s filmography. Like Payne’s other movies, it delves into the problems of a dysfunctional family and captures the aura of American life. Shot in gorgeous black and white cinematography, Nebraska is one of the year’s finest films.
Will Forte plays David Grant, a home theater salesman who lives out in rural Montana. His father, Woody (Bruce Dern), is an alcoholic who has spent much of his blue-collar life hurting those most closely around him. David’s mother Kate (June Squibb) angrily deals with and complains about her husband while his sibling Ross (Bob Odenkirk) suggests that the family send him to a retirement home. Woody eventually comes across a sweepstakes letter, which convinces him that he’s won the million-dollar prize that was front and center on the sheet. Despite his family constantly telling him it was just a contest, Woody’s convinced that he has attained the money and wants to head off to the headquarters of the sweepstakes in Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money in person. Eventually, David, irritated by his father’s antics, offers to drive him all the way up to Lincoln in hopes of cooling down his hot temper.
From there on out, Nebraska becomes a road-movie, a recurring trait in the director’s filmography. And like many films of the genre, Nebraska isn’t as much about the destination as it is about the journey. With Bob Nelson’s debut script, Payne examines the intimate father-son relationship between Woody and David. David considers Woody’s actions irreprehensible as the two drive across much of the open pastures of Wyoming and South Dakota and often bickers with his patriarch’s foolishness. But eventually he comes to a certain term with his father, realizing Woody’s own anguish and issues. Like the protagonist in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, Woody searches for forgiveness and redemption, repeatedly saying he will use the money to not only buy a truck (despite the fact he does not have a license) but to help his family.
Much of the main action in Nebraska culminates in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where he meets old family, friends, and business partners. It does not take long for the rumor to spread about Woody’s supposed million and soon the entire town celebrates Woody’s good fortune. But such goodwill hides much of the true intent of many of the villagers, who want Woody to give them some of his share. His two trashy nephews, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray, are eager to take some of Woody’s money and other family members soon ask him for part of his fortunes. It doesn’t stop there and soon others wish to chip into Woody’s nonexistent money.
What helps carry the picture is Bruce Dern’s might performance. An actor often unrecognized or neglected by many, Dern gives his finest role in Nebraska. He plays all of the subtleties and comic bits Payne supplies with perfectly and after winning Best Actor at Cannes is a sure contender at this year’s Oscars. The rest of the cast is also strong. Forte may be mainly known for Saturday Night Live, but he proves himself as a fine dramatic actor. Odenkirk delivers a very dry and funny performance as Ross and Squibb often supllies the movie’s best lines.
An analytical look at the life of a dysfunctional American family, Nebraska is easily one of the highlights of 2013. Payne further demonstrates his prowess as a director, marking him as one of the consistent filmmakers working today.