Films like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska come few and far between.
Coming a couple of years after the release of Payne’s award winning comedy/drama The Descendants, the director and his team leave Hawaii for the snow-drenched Midwest, taking the color out of his photography with only the spotlight on family remaining. Nebraska tells the story of an elderly man named Woody Grant who firmly believes that he’s won a million dollars thanks to one of those annoying magazine subscription programs, and will do anything he can to make it from Billings, MT all the way to Lincoln, NB to get his money. With everyone around him, including his sons Ross and David (Bob Odenkirk and Will Forte respectively) and his wife Kate (June Squibb) telling him he’s crazy, David decides to take him on a trip to Nebraska despite his better judgment. With a banged up noggin, a family of vultures and a malevolent former business associate all seen along this journey, Payne’s film toes the line between love and condescension with stunning ease, and has become one of the most entrancing bits of familial drama that we’ve seen in a very long time.
The film stars an aging and grizzled Bruce Dern here as Woody, who is at the very height of his powers. While the early moments of this film hint more at the film’s lyrical pacing than anything, it is in the film’s waning 15-20 minutes where Dern’s performance becomes unforgettable. The film’s final act is an absolute emotional triumph and it’s entirely due to the quiet and quaint performance given here by Bruce Dern. However, the real showstopper here is Will Forte in a performance proving him as both a comedic great, as well as a genuinely great dramatic actor. Going blow for blow with a man like Bruce Dern isn’t an easy task, but Forte does so with ease, often times proving to give the more emotionally intriguing performance. Toss in Bob Odenkirk and his lively performance and the real lifeblood of the picture, June Squibb, whose fiery performance grounds the film from becoming not only semi-one note and also arguably ground down by Payne’s stayed filmmaking and pacing, giving the film a comedic heartbeat that is felt from the very beginning.
Speaking of Payne, this is inarguably one of his most intellectually interesting pictures to date. With a story penned by Bob Nelson that unfolds like a novel, revealing slight details every so often until the final act opens the emotional dam. A breathless look at family relationships, the generation gap, the sadness coming with old age and, possibly most interesting, the death of the dream of the American Midwest, Nebraska proves once again that Payne is as great a creator of real tactile characters as American cinema has today.
And while the performances may be seen as relatively quiet, Payne’s direction is even more deliciously picturesque. With gorgeous black and white photography from unsung cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, the film is lyrically shot with a sense of aesthetic pacing that feels ripped right out of the world of Westerns. Static shots abound, Payne takes the color out of his photography and the energy out of his direction, crafting what is truly a melancholy look at the importance of family in the American Midwest. With heartbreaking love for any and every character that comes on screen (particularly seen in a few sequences in a hospital near the film’s conclusion), Payne’s direction is perfectly evocative, being a love letter to a generation nearing its end.
One of the late year prestige pictures this year, this Cannes darling is an absolute stunner. From the breathtaking black and white photography to the collection of top tier performances from this film’s top tier talent, Payne is work on an entirely different level here. A lyrically paced picture, this is the type of picture made decades ago. It’s one that you’ll be watching for decades going forward. Timeless, this film.