The distortion of the truth is a common theme throughout the work of Alexander Payne. Characters either lie their way through their problems or try to warp the world so it doesn’t look so bad. Payne’s latest work, Nebraska, focuses on one big lie blown completely out of proportion and how some call out its falsity, while others clasp onto the hope that it might actually be true.
Woody Grant is an old man living the rest of his days in Billings, Montana. After receiving a letter in the mail saying that he’s won a million dollars, Woody tries to get himself to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. Though his wife and two sons swear to him that it’s just a scam, Woody is persistent. He manages to rope his youngest son David to drive him down to collect his winnings. Along the way they run into a wide variety of Woody’s old friends and family who want their share of the money too.
Nebraska is another fine entry into Payne’s fascinating oeuvre. The film is expertly crafted and beautiful in its simplicity. Everything works from Mark Orton’s entrancing score to the stunning black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Each frame is a wonder to behold and it’s like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life before your very eyes. Of course, that’s also thanks to the amount of Rockwell-esque folks throughout the film.
I don’t know where Payne finds these people, but I give props to him and his casting director John Jackson for the wide array of characters. The characters throughout this film feel so real and nuanced it’s hard to take your eyes off of them. Each one seems like they could tell you’re their personal history if you just bumped into them on the street. Payne loves faces and there are fascinating faces abound in Nebraska.
My favorite face of the bunch is June Squibb playing Woody’s wife Kate. She commands attention whenever she is onscreen and walked away with some of the best moments in the film. Bob Odenkirk is great as always as Woody’s oldest son, Ross. Though just like in The Spectacular Now, I wish we had seen more from his character. Stacey Keach is fun to watch too as the imposing Ed Pegram, Woody’s old friend and former business partner who wants a cut of that money badly. I also found every scene with Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, and Tim Driscoll a joy to watch whenever they graced the scene.
But the real show is between the two leads. Apparently the studio wanted a bigger name for the role of Woody like Gene Hackman or DeNiro, but I think the role fits perfectly on Bruce Dern. This man has been around a long time and his performance is full of detail that makes the awards buzz about him worth it. Will Forte stole the show for me as Woody’s son David. The scenes they had together were engrossing and their relationship sweet. These are two men who are seeking something more out of their lives. When David decides to give in and go on the road, you know it is about more than getting his father to shut up.
Nebraska isn’t just a state; it’s a state of mind. Papamichael shoots these exquisite establishing shots that show the landscape. It’s dry, arid, completely devoid of anything interesting. It’s as empty and vapid as the people living in it. The characters in this film are so disconnected from each other that they are desperate for something more. That’s why they cling on so fast when they think Woody’s won his money: because even if it may not end up being true, these people are convinced that escape is right around the corner even when it isn’t.
I felt entrenched in Nebraska. It is so rich in detail that I already want to see it a second time after leaving the theater. This is a film where everything falls right into place. I haven’t even complimented writer Bob Nelson for his terrific screenplay. Payne has only let me down once so far (About Schmidt) and this is slowly becoming a close favorite of mine the more I think of it. It’s a slow burn, but that’s okay. It takes its time and gives you what I believe to be a satisfying conclusion. I’ve been to the state of Nebraska and I never had a desire to go back to that place. However, after exploring the world Payne created, I found myself not wanting to go.
Nebraska is available on DVD and Blu-ray and to rent through Redbox