Nebraska (2013, Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne’s sixth feature, which might be his best so far if not for that slow-burn catharsis at the back end of the monumental About Schmidt, could hardly be a more radical move away from its predecessor, the slick but impossibly dark George Clooney-driven dramedy The Descendants. It features no (by our modern standards) big stars, is shot in black & white, and is a meditative, snail’s pace story of aging and delusion in a small town. It’s distinctly but not superficially American, not so much intending to capture the feeling of the Midwest as just happening to do so in service of a funny, compelling story. Poetic, stark, sometimes almost claustrophobic in its malaise, it’s a riskier film than the market share of an A-list director can often handle, but Payne has earned the trust of a lot of us. It’s hard to think of a single thing in Nebraska that he doesn’t judge correctly, that should have been handled differently. Like The Descendants, it’s a cold-heart missive on a cynical planet that finally is bound to crack the soul of most anyone.
Payne’s films, aside from the first two, are all essentially the same exact story: a man (so far, always a man) undergoes an emotionally taxing journey after or during an earth-shattering life change, perceived (here and in Sideways) or actual (The Descendants and About Schmidt, both about conflicted grieving for spouses). This probably qualifies him for auteur status, but each of the films feels unique because they are all driven so entirely by the individual people in them. George Clooney’s Matt King bore no relation to Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt and one couldn’t be mistaken for the other even if their convoluted paths were similar. But this is the first Payne film made from a script to which he did not contribute, and this makes a difference. Screenwriter Bob Nelson may have a stronger instinct for characterization than Payne’s ever shown before. He builds from what could be a hollow sitcom pilot: slightly delusional, mostly just lost retiree Woody Grant (a tremendous Bruce Dern, in likely his most complex performance ever) gets a piece of scam mail alleging that he’s won a million dollars and seemingly makes a conscious decision to believe the lie, which has surprisingly varied consequences within and outside of his family, circle of friends and neighborhood. Things proceed in a straight line, though there are many Paris, Texas-like detours to alienating hotels, restaurants with karaoke machines, fights among bar comrades and a lot of people wanting a slice of these riches, until it all reaches (predictably but delightfully) its unceremonious, inevitable washout.
Nelson, Payne and the cast uncover so much about the people and places they investigate. It’s crucial that the film, marginally a comedy, doesn’t rely on simplistic punchlines or contrived situations for its subtle humor, but rather on the general air of poignant absurdity and absurd poignancy — life, in other words — with bits and pieces that will return unexpectedly to the viewer long afterward. For one thing, you’ll never think of a compressor in quite the same way. The relevant sequence, which has Woody’s long-suffering son David (Will Forte) and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) stealing the device from the wrong garage and Woody too befuddled to react with good timing, could be something from a John Hughes film except that Payne plays it with an impeccable timing, gravity and distinctive appreciation for eccentricity that’s nearly unique to him among the current generation of major filmmakers. Breaking down the film’s rhythm and the structure of its individual sequences — in particular the way its major payoffs are just tossed off casually — is a master class in both understated humor and nearly peerless characterization. It’s a result of his attentiveness that the world of Nebraska, while heartless and unpleasant at times, is so richly detailed it’s sort of depressing to see the film end.
Payne’s films have been accused of a Coen brothers-like distance from and condescension toward the people he depicts, but love (to say merely “affection” sounds too superior) for the region, for the people in it, for the toughness and idiosyncrasy embodied by both is emitted from every frame, every scene. Yeah, the movie gets comic mileage out of mundane things and broadly played alpha-male behavior on the part of several supporting characters, but there’s an incredible amount of subtle information not just in Dern’s mannerisms and restrained near-silence as Woody, not just in June Squibb’s hilariously boundary-free chatter playing his wife Kate, but in the sense we get out of both of them (and nearly everyone else, even some who are in the film for just one scene) of the warmth hidden by hardened cynicism in their relationship, of a real sense of a past for each of them. Without overreaching or putting it bluntly, the film explores heartbreakingly the dignity of just going on, and the inevitable yearning for something else. I thought of deceased family members a lot during this and I suspect most viewers will do the same — some things were uncanny, but I assume that’s because the movie is so well-written and not because of any particular uniqueness in my family.
In contrast to both Schmidt and The Descendants, no real catharsis ever comes in this film. The revelation at the core of it is a quieter one, hinted at when Forte asks his dad how you know when you’re sure about something. There’s no doubt that he’s in danger of becoming his father, puttering away down through the years in perpetual apathy while someone who very obviously loves him (we can tell in Missy Doty’s one marvelous scene as David’s girlfriend Noel, probably my favorite in the entire film) watches him begin an early death. But there’s also little doubt that in this single weekend he dredges something up in himself: a real soulfulness, right? A sureness about something. Nothing really happens at the end of Nebraska, but it’s hard to name a recent film’s final act that, for all its flippant exploration of disappointment, left me more overwhelmed. That stoic intensity in Dern’s face as Woody appreciates what his son has done for him, what his son is really expressing to him in these moments, is hauntingly beautiful. And all of it — every real, gut-splitting truth in the entire film — is unstated.
Of course it helps that Nebaska is so lovely to look at. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael deserve kudos for filming this the way they do, capturing the Midwest with a rare sense of beauty and delicacy; for visually approximating the small unstated tragedy of revisiting the now-dilapidated place where decent people raised you; for all of the laughs big and tiny (I prefer the tiny ones, honestly); for the bar scenes (I’ve been in a bar or two in Nebraska and I feel like this couldn’t be more spot-on); and of course for the documentation of Dern’s unforgettable performance — he gives this film its directness and edge, and Payne makes it beautiful, all buried emotion and aching loss under a veneer of sardonics. Nebraska is an odyssey of conflicted parent-child partnership worthy of Paper Moon, and there aren’t many higher compliments.