"David, these plants need water. They're plants."
Alexander Payne started his career off with three films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) at least partially set in his home state of Nebraska. After diversions to California's wine country (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), Payne is back on familiar ground with his sixth feature, Nebraska. Payne's detractors accuse him of portraying the Midwest nothing more than a barren haven for rubes, while his most ardent fans see the verisimilitude with which he portrays a territory for which he has a deep, abiding love. So which camp does Nebraska fall into? Read on to find out...
We're introduced to our main character Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) wandering aimlessly on the side of the road near his home in Billings, Montana. A police officer stops him to ask where he's going and he silently gestures ahead of himself. When asked where he's coming from, he flicks his thumb in the other direction. When Woody's son David (Will Forte) picks him up at the police station, and asks where he was headed, Woody shows him a letter he received in the mail that informs him that he may have won a million dollars, and he's heading to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. David informs his dad that it's a scam to get him to buy magazines and he needs to let it go, but for the next several days, Woody heads off on foot until someone intercepts him and tries to level with him that there is no million dollar prize awaiting him in Nebraska.
David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and mother Kate (June Squibb) refuse to indulge Woody's fantasies, but David finally acquiesces and agrees to take his dad to Nebraska, even though he knows it's all a sham. David is basically trying to make the best of a bad situation and spend some quality time with a dad who was distant at best, in hopes of maybe helping him to get past this delusion and move on with his life. A pitstop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska however brings all manner of crooked family members and old business associates out of the woodwork once word gets out that Woody is heading south to collect some money.
Shot in cold and remorseless black and white, Nebraska is a return to form for Payne, whose diversions west I wasn't a big fan of. While those films had their moments, they felt a bit like the work of a filmmaker somewhat out of his element. Nebraska allows Payne to indulge in the bleak and black Midwestern comedy for which he first made a name for himself. Woody Grant is a character that sees the world in much the same way as it's presented here, and the shades of grey which permeate the film elevate the entire endeavor into something of a minor miracle. What seems like it's going to be a long slog through the flatter portions of this country becomes an, at times, uproarious comedy for those wiling to recognize what it sets out to do.
The film itself gets trapped in the small town of Hawthorne in the way that many people do in such towns all over this country, and it's a magnificent film when it just sort of explores the banal world of small town folks and their relationships to one another. While the film never stoops to outright mockery of small town life, it presents it in a way that will seem foreign to those who've never known of such a way of life, and thankfully never goes for laughs at the expense of any of these people. It's the kind of film that shoots from the hip and shows these small town dynamics for what they are… outright strange. It's a delicate balance that's maintained by Bob Nelson's fantastic script, which has no shortage of empathy for its characters.
As for those characters, Bruce Dern gives a phenomenal performance as Woody, infusing him with so much humanity, you'll wonder why no one else is utilizing his talents in this way. Dern has the salt of the earth type down pat, and the way he delivers his one or two word retorts and answers to questions is nothing short of brilliant. Forte is outstanding as well in a way I never expected. Anyone who's seen his work on SNL or with Tim & Eric will know that his characters often have an incredible anger boiling beneath the surface, and Payne exploits that to tremendous effect. June Squibb is also fantastic as Woody's long suffering wife, who proves to be quite the firecracker herself. She gets many of the film's biggest laughs with her wonderfully incongruous lines.
The film's cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is gorgeous in its sameness and truly aids the story in the best way possible. The score by Mark Orton is sublimely simple, utilizing folksy sounding music that can be both comedic or poignant depending upon the context in which it is used. And I truly cannot say enough good things about Alexander Payne's work here as a director. This is the first film he's directed for which he didn't have a hand in the script writing, and it's focused his work in such a way that he's never been better. The film's stark look is aided by his often comedic compositions, and he understands comedy on a much deeper level than most directors working in the genre today.
Nebraska is a small film with a leisurely pace, but it's as affecting and honest as anything you'll see this year. Bruce Dern gives what might be the performance of his career, and thankfully it's in the service of a film that rises to meet him at every occasion. I'm glad to have Alexander Payne back home in the Midwest working in a place and style he knows like the back of his hand. The time away has strengthened him as a director, but he's put his skills to great use here, and I feel like he's only going to get better. Nebraska is an immensely charming film that is most assuredly worth seeking out.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]