| Dir: Alexander Payne
Payne’s sixth feature has all the familiar archetypes present but what makes them effective and refreshing every time are the flawed, multifaceted characters that are attached to these archetypes and the stellar performances giving them their rich life.
The set-up of the aged, Alzheimer’s-imminent Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) determined to travel to Nebraska to claim the one million dollars he thinks he’s won and his son David (Will Forte) reluctantly driving him there forces the two to be closer to each other for a longer time than they ever have, which makes David’s decision more ambiguously reluctant. He doesn’t really know much about his dad but from an unpleasant childhood he knows that he doesn’t want to end up like him – worthless in many eyes, alcoholic, non-dependent and full of regret. In his dead-end career and failing romance, days are filled with questions of how similar a life he’s living to his old man. This road trip presents David an opportunity to delineate the distinction between how much we inherit from our parents and family, in what ways we can change to escape our fate, and what things are inevitable for us.
Forte acquires most of the narrative drive and does an admirable job in the straight-man role, but Nebraska is a film about Woody Grant and Dern rightfully steals your attention away throughout. His performance contains timeless fascination to observe – he’s lived a life of disappointing sadness and in visiting old haunts such as the cemetery and his family house there’s cinematic treasure in mere looks at walls and counter tops bringing back memories. It’s a tremendous showcase of presence by doing very little but existing in the moment and making this every-day existence so utterly watchable.
Tonally we’re treated to expected skillful control from Payne who makes sure that the somewhat caricatured relatives don’t overstay their welcome and provide running jokes about this family that make you feel part of their tree. They’re practical strangers to David, including his father, so when David gives him one final piece of glory in his hometown (because he certainly isn’t capable of giving that to himself) it feels as likely that he would do this deed for any other member of his estranged family, just because they’re his ‘family’. It makes for a delightfully layered, identifiable and rewarding commentary that endlessly amuses, fascinates and sweetens.