Road movies can be about two things: going somewhere, or going nowhere. The opening of Alexander Payne’s new film tells us right away that Nebraska is in the latter category: the elderly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in heavy winter flannels) lumbers doggedly towards us in a drab edge-of-town landscape shot in black-and-white and spread out across a wide-screen frame. The location is Billings, Montana, and Woody’s intended destination is Lincoln, Nebraska. As the film’s studiedly dreary images of both places alert us, this promises to be a journey from nowhere to nowhere, but Payne plays an ambivalent game. As a Nebraskan who still spends much of his time in Omaha, Payne is the first to say that his state and its neighboring territories are colorless flatlands, not just in the geographic sense, and to mock them as such; this is his second road movie, after 2002’s About Schmidt, to start from the premise of Nebraska as dullness capital of America. And yet his new film also contrives to give the state’s solemn vistas something of an epic quality, and to make its dwellers pithily intriguing, if not fascinating as such.
Written this time not by Payne himself but by Bob Nelson, the film is ostensibly a journey along the approximately 850-mile stretch of road dividing Billings and Lincoln (normally a mere 12-hour drive). But Nebraska ends up becoming something more complex—an odyssey into the past, into missed opportunities, and into the complexities of an everyday family of malcontents. Woody has received a letter telling him he’s won a million dollars (part of a magazine subscription scam), and he’s innocent enough and confused enough to believe it. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), who can beat Woody hands down for cantankerousness, thinks he’s an idiot to fall for it—and takes every opportunity to vent years of long-fermenting spleen: “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire. Shoulda thought about it years ago, and worked for it.”
It falls to the couple’s son David (Will Forte), an unambitious hi-fi salesman becalmed in his stagnant middle years, to drive Woody to Lincoln. There are unscheduled stops along the way—including a detour to the railway tracks to find Woody’s lost teeth (a very funny sequence, running a nice twist or two on Woody’s supposed dopiness) and a family visit to the fictional backwater town of Hawthorne.
In Hawthorne, there’s really nothing going on. In the living room of Woody's brother, the old men sit blankly gazing at TV, while David’s two adult cousins sneeringly close in on him like 10-year-old thugs who haven’t yet realized that they’re inhabiting obese middle-aged bodies. For a while, the script seems just to be playing the old “credulous hicks” card. Word gets out that Woody is coming into big money, and everyone believes it; Woody seems content to go along with the myth, and the film briefly becomes a Midwestern version of Gogol’s The Government Inspector.
Then, bracingly, things get nasty. Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) leans on David for a cut of the loot, and Keach’s quietly menacing mock-aggrieved bullishness (“Hey… I’m the victim here”) very nearly steals the film. When Kate and her other, pushier son, local TV anchor Ross (Bob Odenkirk), take a stand, the film gets nicely peppery, but a little ingratiating: nothing pushes the cantankerous-plain-folks-comedy button more rapidly and efficiently than an innocuous-looking but feisty old lady telling everyone to go fuck themselves.
This is one way in which Nebraska tells us a little too insistently that we’re having a good time, despite the bleakness of the visuals. Squibb is another magnificent scene-stealer and deeply enjoyable company all the way, but the script sometimes overplays her no-nonsense eccentricity—as when Kate whips up her skirts at the grave of an old boyfriend (“See what you could have had?”). And throughout, Payne indulges his most off-putting long-term habit, his use of droll folksy music (here, Mark Orton) to plaster a superfluous wry smile on things.
For all the knockabout stuff, and the sometimes outrageous one-liners, Nebraska is often at its best when illuminating the Grants’ ordinary griefs and complaints—and managing to pull back from sentiment. In a terrifically poignant scene, Woody visits the shell of his childhood home—a stack of clapboard amid dead fields—and we learn not only that his father built it with his own hands but that, having built it, he proceeded to make his son’s life a joyless ordeal. We also meet the charming woman (Angela McEwan) whom Woody could have married—which poses a nice understated philosophical dilemma for David. She could have made his father a lot happier than the embittered Kate, but then David would never have been born—he’d have been even more decisively stuck in Nowhere than he is.
Payne casts the film brilliantly. There’s a weather-beaten realness to many of these faces, especially the unfamiliar ones, who could have come out of vintage Walker Evans photographs. Squibb, Keach, and the two slob cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) are magnificent, while Dern creates a definitive American curmudgeon—a sort of walking liver spot, exhausted by life and alcohol but permanently crackling with barely contained contempt at the world. I have no argument with Dern winning the Best Actor Award in Cannes, but I wish it had been shared with Will Forte; for me, he’s Nebraska’s revelation as a man who carries the weight of his disappointment like a beer belly under his plaid shirt. His David is immensely likeable, partly because he expects so little from life; his whipped-puppy vulnerability, together with his unshakeable quiet decency, make you want him to make good, though you doubt he ever will.
Nebraska neatly avoids the expected cathartic father-son bonding. There’s a decisively kind filial act by David at the end, but the rapprochement between the pair ultimately comes across as more like a curt nod of recognition. You can’t actually imagine life becoming any sweeter or more manageable after the end credits.
All of this adds up to an immensely satisfying adult comedy and one of Payne’s best. The film’s additional claim to distinction is Phedon Papamichael’s superb black-and-white photography (digital, although you wouldn’t know it). The camera contrives to distill the film into essentially a series of majestically lugubrious stills, in the spirit of a journey essentially defined by stasis rather than motion. Nebraska also comes laden with echoes of cinema’s color-era black-and-white landscape tradition—The Last Picture Show most obviously, not to mention Wenders’ Kings of the Road, which was nothing if not a search for America in the middle of Germany.
But the closest comparison is surely Aki Kaurismäki’s 1994 film Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, hitherto the most dour road comedy ever made, and another story about two emotionally illiterate men obliged to keep company in an inhospitable terrain. Some may feel that the sheer classiness of Papamichael’s photography is out of proportion to the modesty of the subject, but not only does it give Nebraska a dour elegance that lifts the story out of the realm of mere anecdote, it also makes you feel you’ve really been to these places—and perhaps relieved not to have made the trip in person. Someone should program this with the Coens’ equally melancholy road-based Inside Llewyn Davis—that would be the downbeat Winterreise double to end them all.