Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, came out of the box thrillingly with their first two features, Citizen Ruth (96) and Election (99). The former skewered both sides in America’s abortion wars, and the latter scrutinized blind ambition and why it wins. Rare in the sheer idiosyncrasy of their themes, they were exceptionally intelligent acerbic comedies, complex enough to warrant comparison with Preston Sturges.
In About Schmidt (02) and Sideways (04) Payne and Taylor tried admirably to deepen the emotional palette of their work, expand the realistic detail, and make the characters less comedically invulnerable. But you could sometimes feel the work lurching from somber observation to would-be wackiness in that uncontrolled manner that Pauline Kael used to call “opportunistic.”
But if one had qualms about Payne’s progress, they were completely overwhelmed by the delicacy and skill of his next directorial effort (co-produced but not co-written by Taylor), The Descendants (11). The third time out, Payne got the comic-pathetic balance right. He managed the star persona of George Clooney effortlessly (which he did not do with Nicholson in About Schmidt), and in his rendering of parent-child dynamics, there was the grace of the fully mature artist and an emotional generosity that did not in any way preclude Payne’s sharp eye for the pettiness or ridiculousness of his characters. Critics have so far viewed almost all of Payne’s films with favor, reaching a peak with Sideways, which no fewer than seven urban critics associations, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and London, named the best film of 2004. Which may mean that Payne is due for a bout of critical backlash and disenchantment. This would be an injustice because Nebraska, written by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson (for the first time, Payne himself has not taken a writing credit), is Payne’s best, most complex, and most satisfying work to date.
Woody (Bruce Dern) is an elderly, unemployed ex-drunk who, believing he’s won a mail-order sweepstakes, sets out on foot from his home in Billings, Montana, for Lincoln, Nebraska, where he obstinately imagines his prize money is waiting for him. His younger son, Dave (Will Forte), decides to indulge his father rather than fight him, and he agrees to drive him to his destination.
The bulk of the story takes place in the fictional town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Dave and Woody stop on the way to Lincoln to reunite with Woody’s living relatives and old acquaintances—all of whom take his fantasy of good fortune for fact. Throughout the film, they treat him, sometimes sweetly and sometimes selfishly, as an embodiment of their own unfulfilled dreams and desires.
Woody, as Scott Foundas has pointed out, is the name of another ordinary guy mistaken by his hometown for a hero, in Preston Sturges’s 1944 masterpiece Hail the Conquering Hero. One of American cinema’s finest character actors, Dern, whose career took off in the Seventies, proved too eccentric, too unconventional to work as a mainstream leading man in commercial fare, but here he’s wonderfully worthy of this auspicious lineage. Payne conceives of Woody as a man who has been cumulatively hardened, punished almost, for the crime of being a bit unusual. Dern used to make comic hay out of his fascination with the sound of his own Midwestern twang, but Woody is all but mute much of the time—a boldly counterintuitive choice, making the few brief moments when Woody does speak up extremely moving.
Hail the Conquering Hero
But Nebraska also displays Payne’s special gift for creating singular female characters. Laura Dern’s Ruth Stoops and Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, the respective protagonists of his two early comedies, were hyperbolically original anti-heroines, almost worthy of Molière in their weird exuberance. As buddy-centric as Sideways was (and as skilled as Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s performances were), Virginia Madsen’s Maya was the freshest and most moving thing in the film. Even more remarkable, perhaps, was the way that Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), the wife of George Clooney’s Matt King, gradually became a fully realized character in The Descendants despite the fact that she is seen alive in just one tight close-up at the very beginning.
The central female in Nebraska is Woody’s wife Kate, played by June Squibb (who got killed off early in About Schmidt so that Nicholson could have the movie to himself). Payne must have taken note of her potential. In Nebraska, he and Nelson misdirect us into thinking she’s just a comic shrew, but gradually we grasp the fairness and astuteness that go hand in hand with her character’s caustic manner. The moment in which she frantically makes small talk with some old married-couple acquaintances in order to shield her sons from being exposed is one of the film’s comic high points. The possibility that she actually understands Woody, and that their marriage has lasted so long with good reason, dawns on us gradually, as a pleasing slow-burn revelation.
Some great directors are visual stylists from the outset, but not all. Reputedly, Woody Allen didn’t know which end of the camera the lens was mounted on when he began making Take the Money and Run. He learned. When you watch the early (superb) films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, you could never imagine the splendors of The Puppetmaster and Flowers of Shanghai.
Payne’s first four films were all character, acting, and dialogue. The Descendants marked a big leap in visual sophistication. To lapse into critical cliché: the landscape of Hawaii became a protagonist. But the staging was also more flexible and fluid, and it was an exciting film to watch.
Nebraska is the first film by Payne that is visually ravishing. However character-centered it is, audiences will also come away remembering many magnificent images: Woody roaming the desolate highwayside, the depleted main street of Hawthorne, the ruined farmhouse. The choice to have cinematographer Phadon Papamichael (it’s their third collaboration) shoot in black and white is Payne’s way of telling us that there’s a darkness in this world, that it existed before the story started and the characters appeared, and that it can’t ever be entirely dispelled.
Quite a bit of Nebraska takes place in the distance between Hawthorne and Lincoln, and there’s no doubt that Payne’s quiet ambition is to sketch the fate of certain American myths symbolized by those names—and by a third, still-active American of near-mythic status that the film’s title can’t help but evoke, Bruce Springsteen.
Hawthorne is the American artist who, more grimly than any other, insists that our culture’s habits of self-esteem will never entirely escape the legacy of our crimes. Lincoln and Springsteen are, of course, Americans who tell us that our dreams, however mired in blood and moral failings, are still worth pursuing even in the flawed incompleteness of their realization.
Payne is becoming another of America’s great liberal/conservative filmmakers. This is the lineage of Capra and Ford as well as Sturges. It involves the liberal critique of greed and acquisitiveness, and the conservative insistence that something in the idea of American exceptionalism and the celebration of the inspired individual is true, that our landscape summons us and our families to something uniquely heroic and noble. The fully achieved balance of these attitudes in Nebraska makes Alexander Payne one of the handful of filmmakers on whom the future of mainstream American cinema depends.