A strong sense of a vanishing past holds sway over an illusory future in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s wryly poignant and potent comic drama about the bereft state of things in America’s oft-vaunted heartland. Echoing the director’s most recent film, The Descendants, in its preoccupation with generational issues within families, how the smell of money contaminates the behavior of friends and relatives and the way Wasps hide and disclose secrets, this is nonetheless a more melancholy, less boisterous work. It’s also defined commercially by the difference between a colorful, Hawaii-set comedy starring George Clooney and a black-and-white, prairie-based old-age odyssey featuring a straggly and unkempt Bruce Dern. All the same, Paramount Vantage should be able to ride accolades for this very fine Cannes competition entry to respectable specialized returns in fall release.
“I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter,” largely sums up the attitude toward the events of his life by old Woody Grant (Dern), a cranky, bedraggled, partially senile coot first seen walking on a highway near home in Billings, Mont. His younger son David (Will Forte) wishes his father would be a bit more communicative, as he’d like a closer relationship, but only his mother Kate (June Squibb) will talk about the old days and then only in the most derogatory terms about her “useless” husband and just about everyone else.
Woody’s hit the road because of a sweepstakes eligibility certificate he received in the mail that he imagines entitles him to a million-dollar windfall. No matter how plainly June and David explain that it’s a scam, nothing will dissuade Woody from walking, if need be, the 850 miles to Lincoln, Neb., the source of the deceptive document, to collect.
Conceding that his old man “just needs something to live for,” beleaguered David takes off work to drive him there just for the personal time it will give them. But while the ostensible focus of Bob Nelson’s original screenplay (the first for a Payne film the director did not officially have a hand in writing himself) is the father-son road trip, nearly all the peripheral characters that come into the picture develop motives related to expectations that Woody has come into mighty big bucks.
Befitting its Paramount heritage, there is a muted Preston Sturges element to the film’s view of the human condition in the way the populace’s heads are completely turned by the presence of celebrity, which the confused Woody now represents, and a possible financial windfall. Two of Sturges’ classics, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, turned on very similar premises.
Part of the issue is that there isn’t that much else to talk about. After brief stops at Mount Rushmore, which Woody disdains because it “doesn’t look finished,” and a goofy interlude spent looking for his missing false teeth along some railway tracks, the two men stop for an impromptu family reunion in (fictional) Hawthorne, Neb., to visit Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his family. Joined by Kate and David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the clan mostly sits around and watches TV; Ray’s overweight sons (Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray) are immature layabouts who, like the older men who come over, mostly talk about cars. While Payne tries to walk a fine line between honest representation and satiric caricature, the result is a pretty caustic group portrait of men who, whatever they may be feeling inside, are utterly undisposed to talk about it, representing one colossal failure to communicate that feels like a genetic male trait.
It falls, therefore, to the women to address the existence of an inner life, not only about themselves, but about the men who refuse self-reflection. Kate is utterly uncensored in her running commentaries about long-ago sexual shenanigans. But it is the odd women David meets around the tiny, forlorn town, notably a wonderful old soul at the town newspaper office (beautifully played by Angela McEwan), who disclose private information that opens a window on Woody’s life the son would otherwise never know.
Then there is Woody’s long-ago business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Each man claims the other owes him something but, now that he’s convinced Woody is loaded, Ed becomes threatening. Then all the relatives pile on, resulting in a group portrait of greed and mooching that is none too pretty.
The emptied-out look of Hawthorne makes it resemble the town in The Last Picture Show, but without the teenagers; there are only old people here, in the saloons and the streets, and other key settings — the cemetery, the newspaper morgue, the dilapidated farmhouse Woody grew up in and his father built — quietly contribute to the feel of time and opportunity having passed by.
In this light, Payne’s insistence on shooting in black-and-white — not an easy argument to win at a studio these days — enriches the film artistically; the story is set in a world that still, both in the cinematic and collective memory, exists in black-and-white. It’s stuck, like the leading characters, with decisions made decades ago and that is still defined by the past and a diminishing number of survivors.
At times in his career, Dern has played characters as half-loonies when it wasn’t necessarily called for. Here, portraying a man well on his way to being checked out, he underplays without a trace of neurosis or mannerism. Woody is a man who will give starts of recognition to anyone who has had parents or grandparents of diminishing abilities, and Dern and Payne keep him interesting by providing flashes of consciousness discernible behind his general inscrutability. The performance is like a window blind that’s mostly closed but can momentarily flip open to reveal what’s in the room.
Forte nicely underplays an incipient sad sack who would dearly like to enrich an uneventful life by learning more about his father but can only do so indirectly, while Squibb gets the most laughs by virtue of her colorful litany of complaints. Keach applies fine contours to his role of an old man all too alive to what he considers unfinished business. Great care is evident in casting down to the smallest bit player.
Phedon Papamichael’s handsome monochromatic cinematography is neither ostentatious nor overly gritty, just forthright and elegantly composed, while Mark Orton’s lovely score, which often employs just a guitar in combination with an array of individual second instruments, provides a constant source of pleasure.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: Autumn (Paramount Vantage)
Production: Bona Fide
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Executive producers: Doug Mankoff, Neil Tabatznik, George Parra, Julie M. Thompson
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Dennis Washington
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Tent
Music: Mark Orton