No one exposes the humor in heartbreak more effectively than Alexander Payne. Over his four features – Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and The Descendants (2011) – Payne has proven himself a master of the comedy-drama, using satirical depictions of contemporary American society to strip back the guards of his main characters who are plagued by existential crises. Nebraska, Payne’s latest masterpiece of moral poignancy, is yet another example of his adroit ability to dig deep and find meaning in regrets and failed dreams. Starring Will Forte and sure-fire Oscar nominee Bruce Dern, the film focuses on Woody Grant, a cantankerous old grump who believes he has won a million dollars after receiving one of those obvious, eye-rolling spam emails that tout a cash prize but really only function to sell magazine subscriptions. Stubborn and blinded by a lack of meaning in his own life, Woody takes the offer to heart and indirectly forces his son, loner David (a subtle Forte), to drive him all the way to the titular state from Montana to receive the prize.
Simply told and executed, Nebraska benefits greatly from its common man feel. Shot in pristine black and white, the film reeks of nostalgia a la The Last Picture Show and deals a lot with how one creates meaning in his/her life long after the time to do so is over. Payne presents the landscape, tone, and people of the mid-west in a humorously dry way; so sucked-of-life is the tone of this movie, exemplified even greater by the use of black-and-white, that this atmosphere single-handedly provides gut-busting comedy to the rather vulnerable and painful proceedings. Like Fargo, Nebraska’s exceptional humor comes from the monotony and plainness of its setting, beautifully showcased as an expanse of gorgeous nothingness by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. No one in this movie is playing comedy but each line and shot evokes humor because Payne roots the viewer so tonally in the desaturation of mid-west old age. Payne often cuts to numerous senior citizens watching television and staring directly into the camera and it’s shots like these that are starkly funny, providing a quiet sense of the pain of old age while relishing in the humor of seeing so much plainness, quietness, and boringness on screen. It’s the type of deft comedy that is made all the more rich because it comes from a place of sincere earnestness; we aren’t making fun of these people nor are we laughing with them, instead we are laughing at them laughing at themselves and it allows Payne to achieve comedy that is as sensitive as it is biting.
Along their journey, Woody and Dave rendezvous with old family members, all hungry for a piece of Woody’s gullible pie. These are people existing, the men and women at the core of the American heartland with few and far purpose between them. And yet, what are their stories? What is the value of merely living? These questions Payne has on his mind and the screenplay by Bob Nelson takes its time getting to the core of Woody’s alcohol-infused disorientation. Dern, a long time character actor, finally gets the performance of a lifetime at age 77. The first time we see Woody he is walking down the middle of the frame along side a highway, a perfect visual metaphor for life’s ability to get us stuck and how we find ourselves moving again a bit too late. Cranky and grumpy, Dern is humorously blunt while always quietly playing Woody’s internal struggles with liquor, family, and old age. Bouncing off Forte, who turns in quite the subtle dramatic performance after years of boisterous work on Saturday Night Live, Dern exposes shades of Woody that feel extremely lived in and truthful. This isn’t the type of man who’ll wear his heart on his sleeve but Dern shows Woody’s misgivings in every grunt and sigh, and slowly do we begin to see the real pain at the core of Woody’s stubborn heart.
That might be the film’s biggest strength – it has an uncanny ability at providing a sense of familial history between its characters. We hardly get backstory on who these people are, yet Dern, Forte, and the irresistible June Squibb, playing Woody’s foul-mouthed, loud-mouthed hoot of a wife, provide a sense of history for their characters that is unshakably authentic. When the three sit down for dinner, they bring the baggage of a lifetime full of family problems with them in their expressions and tiny mannerisms. This is what Payne is so brilliant at, he successfully paints portraits of American families that are as true to life as you’ll ever see. Movies like these often culminate in catharsis – like George Clooney saying goodbye to his dead wife in The Descendants – but Payne goes smaller here constantly, never allowing his characters to become filmic characters. These are people, and the closure we get between Woody and David during a crucial drive is extremely low-key but pitch-perfect because of it. Nebraska relishes in the mundane and every moment of emotion – a quick, quiet look of frustration from Dern, a troublesome pout from Forte, a rambunctious comment from Squibb – stands out so much more in comparison. Sometimes simple is powerful and Nebraska exemplifies this with a subtle knockout of a punch.
Ultimately, Payne dangles human values we take for granted in front of our faces before pulling back the veil on just how painful a life of regrets can be. For this reason, Nebraska is oddly optimistic, a call for stronger relationships and more communication between family members. To say I wanted to hug my own father after my screening would be an understatement. This is the type of film that evokes a sense of family in the deepest of ways, making it almost impossible for you not to think of your own relationships with the ones you love. It takes much pain to arrive at motivational truths and Nebraska accomplishes just that, it’s the hopeful destination of a journey full of conflict. Payne excels at making essential cinema, movies that put our own personal human values into perspective, movies that cut so close to home by being about home in the first place. Nebraska is no exception. It’s a sweet, masterful gem that ranks as one of the year’s best.
Now Dad, where are you? I need to give you a big, long hug.
Review by Zack Sharf