American writer and director Alexander Payne has carved a successful career from exploring the comedy and drama of life through the world-weary eyes of ordinary individuals, from Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt to George Clooney’s Matt King in The Descendants. His latest, the poetic and bittersweet Nebraska, is no different, and has already cemented itself as a strong awards contender after receiving plaudits upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, on exceptional form), a stubborn retiree, is convinced he’s the winner of a $1 million sweepstakes prize. It’s an obvious scam, but he’s determined as ever to collect his winnings, much to the irritation of his wife Kate (June Squibb) and their two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But when Woody adamantly refuses to back down, David reluctantly decides to drive his father to Lincoln: an excursion that takes an unexpected detour to their hometown of Hawthorne and directly into Woody’s past.
Shot in black and white and set in the depths of middle America, a choice that immediately awards the film with a distinct sense of timeless poignancy, Nebraska is a charming and intimate road movie come dramedy about one family’s comical cross-country excursion to collect a prize that has, and never will, exist, and the various bumps and difficult realisations – Woody’s sad realisation that his desire for a late lease of life may have come too late, in particular – that come to the fore along the way.
There’s little doubt that what Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have constructed is delicate, understated and warm-hearted on the surface, but prickly and distressing underneath. The messages explored are undeniably serious and heartfelt (dementia, alcoholism and one-sided relationships, and more are all touched upon), but the tone remains comic, verging on sarcastic from start to finish – a feat that’s difficult-to-achieve, yet ensures the film is as hilarious as it is painful and evocative.
The humanity that this perfectly struck balance brings with it is furthered by Phedon Papamichael’s poetic cinematography and Dern’s award worthy performance that sees him make a triumphant return to the screen. Forte and Squibb’s performances are worth noting, too, particularly the latter who is extraordinarily funny. It’s the way in which Payne binds all these elements together to make a tender portrait of a man searching for that something to make his life truly worthwhile that makes Nebraska truly special.