Writer-director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) returns to his Midwestern roots for his latest dark comedy, ‘Nebraska.’ Payne grew up in Omaha. This is his first feature film that he’s directed without a writing credit. Nevertheless, it bears Payne’s signature style throughout the story with his ability to find melancholy and satire in the American experience. The decision to shoot the film in grainy black and white was a brilliant move. It gives ‘Nebraska’ a bittersweet tone that plays a central role to the story. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography captures the right mood filled with decaying farm towns and beautiful but desolate vistas of the Badlands. Payne’s haunting film serves as an elegy for small-town America.
The story opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) trudging up the highway. Apparently, he is intent on walking the 750 miles from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect his winnings from a sweepstakes letter stating he has won $1 million dollars. Returned home by the local police, Woody is determined to set out on his pilgrimage again. Despite his wife Kate (June Squibb) and son David (Will Forte) insisting the letter is just a mail-marketing scam to drum up magazine subscriptions; Woody refuses to be talked out of his fortune. In order to humor him, David who just got dumped by his girlfriend and works a dead-end job as a stereo salesman, agrees to drive his father to collect the prize. Woody’s spitfire wife Kate lashes out, “I didn’t even know he wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about this earlier and worked for it.”
Once father and son set off in a worn-out Subaru Outback, it becomes a bonding road trip film. At least that’s David’s intentions as the two make a stop in the fictitious small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up. Although the pacing of the story is slow, Bob Nelson’s screenplay cleverly reveals bits of information that adds deeper layers to the characters. We learn more about Woody through the friends and family David meets in his father’s past. Woody is a man of few words so it is crafty the way Nelson uses other characters to paint a clearer picture of the man. In particular, an old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) and a woman Peg Nagy (Angels McEwan) who runs the local newspaper on Main Street.
The film gets bitingly funny when the boys pay a visit to Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his dysfunctional family. David’s rotund cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) are complete losers. Their only conversation piece is their interest in how long it took them to reach Hawthorne. It becomes a family reunion when David’s newscaster brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and mom Kate hop on a bus and join the impromptu gathering for a Sunday meal. There is an amusing scene with all eight Grant brothers sitting around a television set blankly watching a football game. They occasionally banter in minimalist dialogue about what cars they used to own but otherwise, don’t have much to say to each other. It is Payne’s satirical way of looking at the Midwest’s stoicism that is so comical. When family members actually believe that Woody is going to become a millionaire, things heat up with the opening of old wounds and greed.
Without question, casting Bruce Dern as the cantankerous alcoholic Woody Grant was pure genius. His understated performance won him the top acting prize at Cannes and is certain to garner him a Best Actor Oscar nod. The other standouts are Woody’s wife Kate as the matriarch. June Squibb’s acid-tongued remarks keep it real. And the revelation of the film is Will Forte as David. It was risky casting the unknown actor who came from Saturday Night Live but he brings a wounded tenderness to the role that should open up more doors to a serious acting career for him. ‘Nebraska’ is another significant film adding to Alexander Payne’s impressive body of work and should not be missed.
'Nebraska' is now playing exclusively at the Flicks, downtown Boise and an art-house theater near you. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/YvW_DmfKfSk.