Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, opens with a black-and-white image of a flat landscape and a wintry sky, accompanied by the humble strum of a guitar. Fans of Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat album of the same name will initially feel at home. Then, a lilting violin chimes in, playing a melody that suggests a sea shanty. There’s the same bleakness here, but also a redemptive journey to be made.
Our traveller, whom we see shuffling along the side of a highway, is a dishevelled old man moving with a bowlegged gait. A police cruiser pulls up and the concerned cop persuades the old man to get in the car; the road journey is initially thwarted. Thwarted might also be a good word to describe most of the characters in Nebraska, Payne’s sixth feature and third road movie; it’s a grey comedy about a depressive adult son and his senescent father on a fruitless treasure quest that, somehow, succeeds in being uplifting.
Payne put the script by Bob Nelson aside almost a decade ago because of similarities to Sideways, and the marinating period seems to have helped. The humour is, with a few slapstick exceptions, muted and the sentiment dryer than his films of the past decade. Mostly, Nebraska impresses for its sure rhythms and artful balance of comedy and melancholy, resulting in Payne’s most satisfying film since About Schmidt.
The old man is Woody (Bruce Dern) who, after a lifetime of boozing, appears to be suffering from intermittent dementia. He has received one of those bogus letters from a publishing house that implies he may have won a million dollars and he’s determined to travel to the company’s headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., to pick up his windfall.
His family has no patience for his delusions. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt) is like a round tea kettle on perpetual boil who berates her “useless” husband. She tells David (Will Forte) he takes after his father, comparing him unfavourably to his patronizing brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a second-string news anchor for a local television station who would like to park Woody in a nursing home.
David, who’s facing his own existential crisis since his live-in girlfriend left, decides to help his old man fulfill his wish and perhaps get to know what’s left of him at the same time. He calls in sick to work to drive Woody the 850 miles to Lincoln. Off they head on their journey, where the adjective quixotic is entirely apt: Woody’s a Korean war vet whose quest suggests Cervantes’s deluded hero, with David cast in the role of his hangdog sidekick, Sancho Panza. After a misadventure leaves Woody with a concussion, David takes his father for a weekend layover to the town of Hawthorne, Neb., before they drive to Lincoln the next Monday. Hawthorne (a fictional place) is a ghost town in the making, where Woody and his brothers were raised and his surviving family still hangs on. It’s the kind of place where the beauty-salon sign is broken. The monochrome colour isn’t about old-movie romanticism; it’s a way of showing a place has been leached of youth, vitality and imagination.
Despite David’s warnings, Woody soon spills the beans about his million-dollar prize and becomes the toast of the town. There are unmistakable echoes of Preston Sturges’s 1944 classic, Hail the Conquering Hero, starring Eddie Bracken (as a fake war hero also named Woody), but while Sturges’s movie was explosive, Nebraska is funereal. A row of inarticulate, mostly old men cram in front of the Sunday football game, staring blankly at the camera while talking about previously owned cars.
Woody barely seems to notice the fuss around him, leaving the social duties to David. The darkest figure is Woody’s former business partner, Ed (Stacy Keach), a glad-handing weasel whose rumbling sanctimonious baritone on In the Ghetto is the highlight of the local karaoke bar.
As the weekend progresses, David satisfies his part of the quest – to get to know his father.
Payne proves again he’s very much an actors’ director (did Reese Witherspoon ever match her work in Election?). Forte, as the lost soul who finds his integrity, leaves the broad comedy of 30 Rock and MacGruber far behind here in a nuanced, reactive performance that could open up a new dramatic career for him. But the star is unquestionably Dern, a ragged scarecrow who does nothing to earn sympathy beyond showing the character’s physical wreckage and his flickering reaction to the half-dead world around him.
Dern, 77, who won the best actor award at Cannes this year and is a strong Oscar contender, does exactly what you don’t expect from an actor known through the 1970s for his roster of psychos and obsessives: He underplays the part beautifully, staying deep inside a character who is deep inside himself. He’s not crusty, he’s a pile of broken granite.