On the face of it, Alexander Payne may appear to be raking over old ground with his latest feature, ‘Nebraska’. It marks a return to the road movie genre, which went a long way to making his name with ‘About Schmidt’ and ‘Sideways’ shortly after the new millennium and, once again, builds on Payne’s favourite theme of male crisis. But it is apparent from the opening scenes that there is a new mood prevailing over this one; pared down to basics and shot in a grainy black and white, which is both stark and strangely nostalgic at one and the same time.
And it’s no coincidence that Nebraska’s characters have the same washed out resignation that we associate with the wandering nomads from the classic road movies of New Hollywood. Just as the Seventies suffered from a sense of loss, anxiety and failed hope after the youth revolution came to nothing, Payne picks up on a similar despondency during our troubled times. We could say the same thing of Jeff Nichols’ ‘Mud’.
Bruce Dern has a reputation for being a fine character actor, specialising in meaty supporting roles. But anybody who has seen Dern as Big Bob Freelander in Michael Ritchie’s sometimes overlooked New Hollywood gem, ‘Smile’, knows that he is just as good playing the lead. And, almost forty years down the road, he excels here in the principal role as Woody, a cantankerous drunk and retired mechanic, who is somewhat disorientated in life as senility beckons. Calling on all that experience, Dean superbly captures the slow movements, carelessness and lost trains of thought that go with the territory but every once in a while – perfectly judged fleeting moments – he throws in the odd hint of more; usually a purposeful gesture or a sustained look, which arouse our interest but leave us curious.
We find Woody trying to escape a routine of perpetual boredom in Billings, Montana when he embarks on an impossible interstate walk after receiving a bogus junk-mail $1m prize on condition that he collects it from Lincoln, Nebraska. But this is no revamp of ‘Straight Story’, with an old guy using ingenuity and dignity to defy the odds in crossing hundreds of miles by his own steam. Woody does not understand the odds in the first place and when a concerned policeman asks him where he is travelling, Woody merely points straight head without uttering a word or batting an eyelid.
Will Forte has put his name in the frame for major parts with a sensitive but unsentimental performance as Woody’s son, David. Getting by for the moment selling stereos, we wonder how sustainable that may be as the recession’s economic chill bites deep into N.W. America. David has that familiar air of responsibility that sometimes goes hand in hand with the mundane and offers to drive Woody all the way to Lincoln without leaving any scope for a refusal. But this is more than simply getting the pipe dream out of Woody’s system, it is an opportunity to connect with his Dad for the first and, possibly, last time.
And June Squibb completes a trio of exceptional performances playing Woody’s long suffering but fierce wife, Kate. The relationship has reached the familiar point of narrow-minded mutual impatience where they scold each other without listening to the response – a given on both sides. Kate amuses herself and others, including us, with obscene and dubious sounding tales of how seemingly every other man in the area has tried to find their way into her knickers at some stage or other. At one point she stands over a grave, raises her dress and shows a once would-be suitor what he had missed.
The film’s middle section takes us to Woody’s home town, Hawthorne, where David takes a detour for an impromptu family reunion. Woody communicates with his brothers in two or three words at a time and his nephews taunt David in an increasingly menacing manner. In one brilliant scene, we get a shot of the clan as if filmed from inside the telly, which they are half-heartedly watching in a semi-conscious zombie-like state.
At the local honky tonk, we discover one or two things about Woody’s past that take us by surprise and Woody sees his old-timer friends in a new light when word gets out that he may be coming into some serious money.
Collectively, these scenes paint a telling picture of melancholic small town hopelessness, which feels all too real.
‘Nebraska’ is ultimately a film about end games – old age, backwater America and traditional cinema – but Payne’s previous warmth as a director does not entirely desert him and nor does it compromise the harsher reality that he is depicting. Affectionate and humorous asides seamlessly weave in and out of the narrative in ways that are genuinely moving and engaging and Phedon Papamichael’s monochrome photography carries with it a solemn beauty, which does much to set the film’s tone.
And we never do find out whether Woody really believes that he has won a pot of gold.