Sideways director Alexander Payne delivers another understated masterpiece set in the anonymous flyover states
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is not a complicated film. With its understated family dysfunction and plain characters, Payne's latest slice of deliberately bland Americana slots in easily with previous efforts like Election and About Schmidt, where the common geography – Nebraska – is just as important as the disparate subject matter.
Even Payne’s sunnier efforts do not lack his penchant for underscoring the simplicity and disappointments of life. Sideways may have been set in the Californian vineyards, but its faded taverns and cheap motels were just as important as the bottles of wine. The Descendants played out on the island paradise of Hawaii, yet it was unafraid to present that place as a relative backwater, all weathered luxury and sun-bleached, dried-out swimming pools.
Regardless of the locations, Payne possesses a real talent for painting familial strife as something that most of us encounter; something which can, at times, be fairly unremarkable. Quirky and amusing without aping the Coen brothers’ sense of humour, his movies are not great meditations on the human condition, rather depictions of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Perhaps that is why they are so watchable.
Nebraska opens with confused, grumpy pensioner Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) shuffling along the side of the road outside of Billings, Montana. The reason for his impromptu journey? The belief that a mailshot promotion informing him that he has won a million dollars is in fact genuine. The only catch: he has to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his loot.
Enter his patient, kind-hearted son David (Will Forte) who, in spite of an obvious lack of mutual affection, is still loyal enough to his father to gently indulge a fantasy borne of obvious dementia. Eventually David relents, strapping his old man into the passenger seat and setting out on a road trip for no other reason than to give them both a change of scenery.
What pans out is not really a road movie, nor is it a family drama. In reality, Nebraska is a bit of both. Either way, this is a terribly accomplished piece of cinema that may well be undone – in terms of mass acclaim and financial success at least – by its own refreshing lack of fanfare.
A stuttering journey eventually lands both characters in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska and from that point revelations and resolutions are handled with Payne’s typically subtle frankness.
The whiff of riches, however fanciful, affords Woody some level of celebrity on his old stomping ground and, in spite of its comedy value, the manner in which the community goes all in with him over his newfound wealth is touching. Most people (though not all) are genuinely pleased for him, and in a desolate town torn asunder by the recession, Woody’s presence offers a sliver of hope many of its residents are reluctant to undermine.
The film’s title speaks to more than Payne’s quiet fascination with the anonymous flyover states, captured here in sumptuous monochrome, where the Montana of the opening scenes is one of strip malls and chain stores instead of stetsons and Marlboro country. For it is in Nebraska that the modest truth behind Woody Grant’s life emerges.
He is not a great man or a loving man, nor is he especially complex. He drinks too much, has few good words for anyone and even his marital fidelity is called into question. Woody’s is a life worthy enough, however, to grab one’s attention. Much of that is down to the skill of the cast as well as Payne, who directs screenwriter Bob Nelson’s debut feature with a distinctively assured hand.
As far as the casting of the core Grant family goes, the filmmakers have hit a home run. Dern excels as the bored, unresponsive Woody offering just the right amount of irritable confusion to suggest that his mental wellbeing is very much on the downward slope. It is a great pity that an actor of such skill is not seen more often on our screens. That said, with a performance likely to bait many an awards event, Dern could yet find renewed life in a solid career.
Will Forte may well be in line for official recognition also, such is the level of his work here. As the dutiful son of irritating parents, Forte is a revelation as the film’s still centre. Father and son share little common ground, but both Woody and David are as close to being dreamers as Payne will allow.
Forte's Saturday Night Live roots can be seen in the dryness of his delivery, but beyond that his dramatic bona fides are cemented. The closing scenes could have been exploited for laughs, but both Dern and Forte have the sense to let the script breath and speak for itself.
June Squibb’s turn as the irreverent matriarch is superb and she is likeliest of all to see her name read out on Oscar night, in my opinion. Tough, foul-mouthed and completely in charge, Squibb’s Kate is the star performance as she strides in and out of frame, berating her husband and her sons, labelling her late sister-in-law ‘a slut’ and even lifting her skirt over the grave of a long dead suitor.
The Grants function as a convincing family and Breaking Bad star Bob Odenkirk rounds them out as older brother Ross. Even here, Nebraska surprises. A more cynical film would present Ross as a feckless prima donna, given his position as a local TV news anchor and the fact that few actors can do slippery better than Odenkirk. But Ross is nothing of the sort. He is as committed to his parents as the sweet-natured David, and there is real chemistry between the four principals late on.
With more obvious awards season fare on the horizon, there is every chance that a film as knowingly modest and apparently unambitious as Nebraska could become lost in the noise. While it is difficult to tell how much that would matter to the unassuming Payne, it would be a great pity nonetheless. Audiences should see it while it remains out there on its own.
Nebraska runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until December 22.