Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Election) tends to be branded a misanthrope. His detractors say he puts his characters through wringers; that he patronizes them, subtly poking fun at their stupidity; that he scoffs at their mid-western upbringing and outlook towards life. Some even say he’s a chauvinist, and that his acid-stained humor is that of a filmmaker with a bitter world view. These criticisms are absurd. If anything, Payne is a filmmaker with an acute understanding of human behavior. He may put his characters through tough situations but the tenderness in which he approaches these people demonstrates that he deeply cares for and empathizes with them.
Take Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), the 70-something protagonist of Nebraska, Payne’s latest, and arguably, most intimate film to date. Woody is an alcoholic. He’s a selfish, stubborn grump – the kind of person you wouldn’t want to have as a family member. He also treats his wife Kate (June Squibb) and their two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) as inconveniences. In short, he isn’t a very “nice” man. But Payne, working off a miraculous script by Bob Nelson, isn’t a filmmaker who subscribes to that inane cinematic belief that people are either good or evil. He recognizes who Woody is, nose hairs and all, and then invites us to go on a journey with him – to understand him.
When we first meet Woody in the film’s opening shot, he’s walking down the side of a Montana highway – determined to walk all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska – to pick up a million dollar prize from Publishers Clearinghouse that he received in the mail. Although Kate, David and Ross keep telling him that the prize is a scam, Woody won’t budge. After these walking trips start become a major cause for concern, David, a recently single electronics salesman, decides to fulfill his father’s wish and drive him up to Nebraska. There’s one catch: Before they reach Lincoln, the duo will have to meet up with Kate and Ross in Hawthorne, the Grant family’s ancestral hometown, to visit their relatives. It’s over here that David finally gets to learn more about his parents, specifically Woody, and how their experiences in this small town informed their futures.
Although Nebraska, which Payne had been developing since he read Bob Nelson’s script in the early 2000s, is the first film he doesn’t share a screenwriting credit on, it’s nevertheless bears all the trappings of a Payne film. There’s the road trip aspect, a characteristic of his last three films. There’s the sudden bursts of absurdist humor that lends the film buoyancy. And most of all, there’s the exploration of familial relationships and regret – a key element in his best films.
A characteristic unique to this film is its portrait of small town life in America, its rustic culture and lethargic denizens – the majority of whom are elderly, alcoholics, or both. Whether its moments of levity or gravitas, Payne’s perspective on small town life rings authentic; and thanks to Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful stark black-and-white cinematography, awash with shots of vast empty fields and farmlands, the film is lent a characteristic of timeless beauty.
The heart of Nebraska though is the relationship between father and son – and Payne’s actors are more than up to the task. Dern, a screen veteran who has slogged away as a supporting character for decades, is sublime as the cranky grump on the verge of senility, masterfully embodying Woody’s sense of regret and frustration with life. Forte, best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, is surprisingly solid in a role that’s a drastic departure for him. The film’s true standout though is Squibb. As Woody’s sassy wife, Kate, Squib (who also appeared in About Schmidt) effortlessly alternates between mean and nagging matriarch to sharp and foul-mouthed old lady. She’s a hoot and source of many of the film’s funniest moments. Nebraska is many things – an exploration of regret, a portrait on relationships between generations, a wistful comedy on aging, a tender road trip drama, and in Payne’s assured hands, an exquisite and joyful movie-going experience.