dir: Alexander Payne
Many pit stops are made during Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a road movie in which a defeated middle-aged sales assistant accompanies his elderly father on an 800-mile journey to collect $1m, which the senior man believes is rightfully his. But the one that takes the men to a cemetery, where graves cluster under the sky like crooked teeth in a gaping mouth, is memorable for an unusual reason. The camera pans across a tombstone bearing the name “PAYNE”, which would seem to be going a little far in the self-deprecation stakes.
True, many of us can scarcely believe the cheapening in tone and the falling-off in sophistication between the director’s scabrous 1999 film Election and 2011’s mean-spirited comedy-drama The Descendants. But surely even his severest critics wouldn’t suggest that Payne’s creative prospects are six feet under. In Nebraska, the vital signs are faint but he’s not dead yet.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is first seen plodding along the hard shoulder of a curved Montana highway while a factory chimney exhales smoke across the industrial landscape behind him. He has resolved to walk to Nebraska after receiving a letter from an office in that state advising him that he is in line for a fortune; it’s the sort of marketing scam most of us would put straight in the cat litter tray but the credulous Woody takes it at face value. Each time he sets off, though, some cop or relative twangs him back home as though he’s on an invisible piece of elastic.
His son David (Will Forte) who seems to admire his father’s purposefulness from the vantage point of his own drab job and failed relationship, decides it would be kindest to let the old man complete his odyssey. David volunteers to drive Woody to Nebraska. The route he chooses takes them there via bonding, nostalgia and homespun working-class values.
Payne is no newcomer to the road movie – his last three films (About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants) fall into that category. But the switch that he and his regular cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, have made in Nebraska to classical black-and-white suggests aspirations to join a loftier heritage. The blank granite highways, plain open skies and flat horizons call to mind Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, which in turn paid homage to John Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath. That’s a lot of baggage for any film to carry around, especially one with such a simplistic view of human nature.
Payne has rarely met a character he couldn’t use to score an ironic point, or to overturn smugly an audience’s expectations. Take Woody’s wife. Please. Kate (June Squibb) seems at first to be long-suffering and essentially lovable until she exhibits a jarring coarseness in an inappropriate setting. Our response is unlikely to be one of surprise so much as recognition at a director resorting to his tried-and-tested formula: comforting first impression + sudden disorienting behaviour = character.
Nebraska is the first of Payne’s films that he didn’t have a hand in writing (the screenplay credit goes to Bob Nelson) but his thumbprints are all over its stacked deck. The parade of grotesques this time includes Woody’s overweight nephews, a proper Tweedledee and Tweedledumb, who grab shamelessly for a share of their uncle’s money; and a carnivorous old foe, played by Stacy Keach, with a face like a battered boxing glove. It’s not enough for the director that his audience discerns quietly heroic qualities in Woody: they must also see extravagant villainy in others. His cinema is as binary as the crudest action blockbuster.
Woody is memorialised as a grizzled old coot through close-ups and the cloying comments of onlookers. (Asked whether his father has Alzheimer’s, David replies fondly: “No. He just believes stuff people tell him.”) To his credit, Dern resists the camera’s sentimentality. He can be a highly animated actor, as he proved in his prime in the 1970s in films such as The King of Marvin Gardens and The Driver, but here he wisely plays it blank – his performance as flat and bristly as the landscape around him. Will Forte is much softer as David. A predominantly comic actor usually given to volatility, he is expertly used here for tenderness and equivocation. If a shrug or a sigh could assume human form, it would look like him.
Any authentic moments in Nebraska tend to be matters of physiognomy beyond the director’s control. When it is suggested that David and his brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk, best known as the venal lawyer Saul from Breaking Bad), might want to see where their father grew up, Woody is indignant: “What for?” he demands. They make the pilgrimage anyway, but Woody is unimpressed by the site of his childhood home: “It’s a bunch of old wood and some weeds”. His words serve as an accurate description of his own sandpapery face. No wonder he is nonplussed by a visit to Mount Rushmore, too. Compared to him, the craggy and imposing presidents look as smooth as boyband poppets.