Beginning with 1999’s excellent and acerbic Election, Alexander Payne’s films have been chiefly concerned with male characters who are going through something resembling a mid-life (or late-life) crisis of identity. To the list of Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, Paul Giamatti’s Miles, Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister and George Clooney’s Matt King we can now add both Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant and his son David (played by Will Forte), two men somewhat weighed down by family ties and history, setting out on yet another journey, in both the physical and metaphysical sense of the word.
Payne’s other lead characters have had a variety of different reasons for their internal wrangling and questioning, much of which has taken place on the road, with distance from home affording greater perspective and clarity of thought. Long-term alcoholic Woody’s search for meaning and identity comes in part from the onset of senility, which is causing a growing disconnection from both the present and the past. On the surface Woody’s journey is motivated by financial gain, but as the story progresses it becomes clearer that Woody isn’t really interested in money; he just wants to be the man he used to be, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.
We first encounter him wandering alone on the side of the freeway in Billings, Montana, where he lives with his sparky wife Kate (the excellent June Squibb). After the police safely deliver Woody back to his house, Kate – whose patience is rapidly being exhausted by Woody’s condition and behaviour – expresses her frustration toward her husband, who cannot seem to take in her complaints. It transpires that Woody is determined to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim a spurious $1 million sweepstake win from a company selling magazine subscriptions, and as he is not allowed to drive any more he is repeatedly setting off for the city on foot.
(Almost) newly single David lives nearby, as does his older sibling Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a successful local newscaster. While Ross and Kate feel the best way to deal with Woody’s illness is to put him in a home, David is more sympathetic towards his father’s decline, and despite being aware that the prize is fake, he eventually decides to drive Woody to Nebraska so that his father can attempt to claim the money.
On the way they stay with relatives in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town Woody grew up in. Woody meets old friend and business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach, wonderful) and reveals his reasons for visiting Nebraska. Very quickly word spreads around Hawthorne that Woody is to become a millionaire, and David ends up fighting off requests for money from Ed and an increasing number of visiting family members as Woody’s celebrity stock rises. Kate and Ross also head to Hawthorne for a big family get-together, and David learns more about his father’s romantic and military history during their stay.
Dern is fantastic as Woody, a remarkable acting performance that makes a mockery of the lack of good leading roles that he has received in recent years. It is a reined-in performance, but memorable due to Dern’s nailing of the character’s confusion, brought on by the ageing father’s senility. At times he is motionless, drifting in and out of conversations with other family members, but the intense, ravaged look on his face ensures your attention remains on him. A scene near the end, in which Woody is allowed to drive a new truck through the streets of Hawthorne while trading telling glances with the locals, is one of my favourites of the past year; it is simple and subtle but – largely due to the look on Dern’s face – incredibly moving.
Considering the high-profile names that were attached to the two main roles before production began, Payne’s casting looks on paper to be bold and defiantly non-commercial. It paid off artistically; Dern is well-supported by the not-very-well-known Will Forte, with whom he shares most of his scenes. June Squibb – who played Jack Nicholson’s wife Helen in About Schmidt – is just as fascinating to watch as Kate, a feisty lady with a sharp tongue who seemingly had the whole of Hawthorne chasing after her back in the day.
Kate comes to the rescue as family vultures circle the potentially-rich Woody, and the get together of the wider Grant clan is one of the film’s highlights. Woody seems to have little in common with older brother Ray (Rance Howard) and David even less with Ray’s two delinquent sons Cole (Devin Ratray) and Bart (Tim Driscoll), a couple of lazy, dumb and ignorant criminals who provide a few of the film’s laughs. Payne makes great use of the stilted conversation between the male family members as they are gathered round a football game on TV (which is actually the camera’s vantage point), with small talk about cars and journey times the order of the day. Woody and his brothers are quiet, to say the least, and the women do most of the talking.
Indeed Woody’s quietness is a barrier to his relationships with Kate and their two sons. David harbours some resentment due to Woody’s years of drinking, but mostly it’s frustration from not knowing his father better, though there is a breakthrough of sorts when he decides to have a drink with old man instead of chastising him for falling off the wagon. David learns a lot about Woody from other residents of Hawthorne, including Woody’s old flame Pegy (Angela McEwan), a local journalist. Woody has seemingly remained tight-lipped for many decades about his role in the Korean War, and this stoic, stubborn refusal to discuss old events and periods seems to be the Grant way.
Against the wishes of distributor Paramount Vantage, Payne decided to shoot in black and white. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael stated that the choice was made for the ‘poetic quality’ offered by black and white film, particularly with regard to the landscapes that form a large part of the story. This was a good decision, and Payne’s commitment to highlighting the buildings and surrounds of these small and large towns is clear, and effective. He often breaks away from the narrative to show crossings, long-standing companies and old houses, highlighting the fact that these towns have largely been left alone by corporate chains and rampant developers. Many could easily be used as locations for stories set in the 1950s, with only the merest amount of covering-up required, and the black and white calls to mind those earlier eras. With old signs and posts finding their way into the frame, the film adeptly mimics the 1950s and 1960s photography of Lee Friedlander on more than one occasion.
I must admit that the adoration that greeted Payne’s last film, The Descendants, caused me to raise an eyebrow when I finally watched the film. (It’s a bit of a sacred cow, so I shall say this quietly: I think Sideways is similarly overrated.) There was certainly nothing wrong with the acting, but I found it to be too slow and plodding at times. Nebraska is also slow, but it seems to suit the characters and the setting more this time. Payne has a sympathetic touch for the former and a fondness for the latter; the unrushed pace gives us plenty of time to understand the father / son relationship at the heart of the film and the change in that relationship that takes place, while also allowing us ample time to wallow in the locations.
Nebraska is a bittersweet road movie that owes a debt of sorts to David Lynch’s low-key, contemplative work The Straight Story. Of the many nominations up for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, it may not have the jaw-drop dazzle of Gravity or the attention-grabbing fizz of American Hustle or The Wolf Of Wall Street, but it is a very well-made, quiet and reflective film with good writing, a strong visual identity and some excellent performances, especially Dern and Squibb.
As usual with Payne the destination is nowhere near as important as the journey itself, and the director, actors and writer Bob Nelson have successfully created well-rounded principal characters for us to follow as they wrestle with their close and not-so-close long-term relationships. Some of these have a certain degree of emotional baggage attached, but they are covered realistically and largely without any jarring dramatic explosions (save for a short row in a back yard and a well-deserved punch in the face).
Nelson’s screenplay is a moving treatise on the ageing process and the overlooked, soon-to-be forgotten details of a lifetime. Payne and co capture this perfectly in several scenes (when Woody visits his childhood home, for example, it is not an exaggeration to describe the acting, direction and cinematography as masterful), and together they turn a simple indie road movie into something truly worth admiring and cherishing.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
Running Time: 110 minutes