With Nebraska, Alexander Payne comes home: after recent jaunts to sunnier climes—California wine country in Sideways and Hawaii in The Descendants—the Omaha native is back in the American heartland that he knows best, and his return couldn’t be more welcome. The new film, a road story in which cantankerous retiree Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) convinces his son Peter (Will Forte) to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska (he’s hoping to cash in a million-dollar sweepstakes letter he received in the mail), is firmly rooted in the Midwestern landscapes, rituals, mannerisms, and social spaces that Payne understands so instinctively and that haunt his superb early works Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt. I think that Nebraska deserves to be placed among those films, in part because it taps more deeply into that lonely, aching, funny-sad hauntedness than anything Payne has done before. Somewhat audaciously, it’s a family comedy built, much like Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, on a the bleak understanding that vast expanses of our country are made up of dead or dying towns populated by dead or dying people. That Payne and his screenwriter, Bob Nelson, are able to find humor in these bleakest of places doesn’t allow us to shake the film’s eerie sense of the rural Midwest as a space out of time, a graveyard, a ghost world. Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography only emphasizes that ghostliness; the film’s characters, the average age of which is about seventy, seem to be going about their lives in a world lost to history, and the film even presents itself as something from a bygone era, right down to its vintage poster and reincarnation of forgotten ’70s-era stars like Dern and Stacy Keach.
If that makes Nebraska sound like a grim slog, rest assured that it’s leavened by rich, even broad comedy, mostly supplied by the pitch-perfect June Squibb, who plays Woody’s tart-tongued wife with a certain blithe nastiness. As is typical in Payne’s films, there’s also a plentiful stock of sharply drawn character parts; even the walk-on roles are memorable. And Dern is extraordinary here, drifting effortlessly from vulnerability to irascibility to stone-faced numbness and back again. It’s such a quiet performance—there are no arias, no set pieces—that one fears it could go overlooked at the end of the year. (Happily, Dern has already won two major prizes for the film, one at Cannes, the other from the National Board of Review. I suspect that more will follow.)
I still think that Payne should get back to writing his own films, preferably in conjunction with former collaborator Jim Taylor, but Nelson’s screenplay makes a good fit with Payne’s talent for making what appear to be “feel-good” movies about ordinary folks but which are actually absurdist farces laced with quiet despair. What has often been mistaken for condescension or smugness on Payne’s part is actually a deeply felt sensitivity to what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation,” cut by a sense of humor worthy of Beckett. Is it possible for an artist to have such a dark vision and be so humane at the same time? It’s a fine line to walk, and Payne walks it beautifully in Nebraska.