2011’s The Descendents marked career high attention for soulful filmmaker Alexander Payne, who tells stories of male figures and their crumbling identities. Like all of his movies, The Descendants delicately places comedy within sorrow, and uses an unconventionally shot Hawaii to help do it. The images are always beautiful, but the landscapes are an uglier, less glamorous look at the panoramic island. The location, or more specifically, its presentation, becomes so integral to the film’s tone, emotion, and theme that the line between setting and story becomes blurred. It’s that type of narrative invention that has earned him popularity in the art house swing, and with his latest film Nebraska, he’ll only be more loved. It’s the best film he’s made yet.
Nebraska begins with a long lasting shot of an old man struggling to come into focus, a visual metaphor we learn is mournfully appropriate. Woody Grant is an elderly man who believes he has just won the lottery, and because his wife won’t drive him to pick up the prize a state away, he’s determined himself to walk there instead. Nebraska. He won’t ask for help from his sons or any remaining friends. He’s not that kind of man. A gentle policeman picks him up and brings him to the police station where his annoyed son, the younger, brings him home. Woody did not win the lottery, and on some level he knows it. Yet, he refuses to stand still about it, and constantly slips away to chase his dream and what it’ll get him. For Woody, that would be a new truck (he’s never purchased a new truck before) and an air compressor since he lent his away decades ago. We come to see why those items mean so much to him, or at least enough to propel his loony quest. The younger son eventually breaks down and takes him to Nebraska to retrieve the fake reward. There, their roles are reversed: it is usually the parent who makes up a treat to get the child to quiet down. It’s the type of screenplay where every article has double meaning, and if the film ever generated a SparkNotes page, it would be a crowded one.
Payne handles the natural confusion of aging with the same poised grace as the police officer in the opening scene, but Nebraska would be nothing if it weren’t for the stunning lead performance by Bruce Dern as Woody. His is a theater of subdued emotions that is hidden away beneath a weathered and angry face, and an Oscar nomination is imminent. A role this complex and played by an actor this good demands serious recognition, and although he probably won’t win this year at the Oscars — it’s too crowded a category — thankfully he already won best actor at Cannes earlier this year. In the most dramatically compelling role of Will Forte’s career, playing the younger son, he proves he has serious acting chops perfectly fit for the comic melancholy of an Alexander Payne film. The two share biting chemistry on screen, and they marry perfectly with Payne’s intended tone. By embedding both of them in rolling rural American landscapes, it becomes clear Nebraska is really a companion piece to The Descendants. Like that picture, Nebraska’s setting is in direct discourse with the characters and their desires. What the farmed hills symbolize shift as the characters do, usually tied in some way to a classic illustration of tradition and the old ways. Even the overall stylistic palette reflects a shift to the traditional for Payne, not only because of the black and white photography, but by simplifying composition and camera movement too. There’s even an old school swipe-edit to cut from a living room dialogue scene.
In a word, history. That’s what Nebraska is all about. Although it probably wasn’t intentional, the story is structured extremely similarly to one of the all time great existential masterpieces: Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. It’s another “on the road’ film, one that uses a journey forward to reflect on what’s in the rearview mirror. And, like that film, Nebraska has frequent tangential stops along the way that confront characters with their greatest past joys as well as their darkest demons. The main character of Wild Strawberries, Isak Borg, is also set to collect a prize of some kind, and he too has a troubled relationship with his son. This odyssey-like narrative framework evokes a sense of life passing as a whole, with its many unexpected pit stops along the way. All that remains are your choices and how you live with them. Nebraska’s journey is a bittersweet reflection on old lives looking back on life in the big picture, and it’s a heartening ride.