Alexander Payne makes a very specific kind of movie. The majority, not all, are road movies, but beyond that it’s the breezy way he depicts American life that makes a Payne a Payne. Nebraska may just be the most Payne.
Be it Wine Country, Hawaii or indeed, Nebraska, his protagonists all share a natural distance to their surroundings. One ailment or another always sees his characters removed from the reality of the situations around them. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti can’t acclimatise to his best friends desire to cheat on his wife before he is even married. All he wants is to drink wine. In The Descendants, the duality of his wife’s comatose situation and her newly discovered infidelity leads him to a similarly disorientated mission. He just wants to find the guy who’s been shtupping his wife. In About Schmidt, well you get the point…
Here in we watch as Bruce Dern’s Woody shakes off his seeming dementia, his battle with alcoholism, ignoring all the years that precede him, completely focused on getting to Nebraska. He has received a letter informing him of his chances to win a million dollars and all he has to do is prince his ticket at the office located in Nebraska and nothing will stop him from getting there.
When we first meet him he is locked in that world ignoring Paynesian drive, walking down the highway. He almost appears staggered by a police mans attempt to stop him but his blind ambition curtails his astonishment, he just carries on. After multiple escapes, we are introduced to his weary son David (a brilliant Will Forte), who eventually relents and decides to take him to Nebraska, evidently for one last hurrah.
The story takes a detour through Woody’s birthplace as they visit relatives not seen for years. It’s here where David and Woody get chance to reconcile, catch up and just chat. It’s brilliant, simplistic filmmaking. They are surrounded by old acquaintances, now hungry for a bite of the pie Woody thinks he has. They battle with greedy relatives and each other as Woody becomes more and more shut off, more and more determined.
What makes this film is it’s cheery disposition. Despite Woody’s near heartbreaking condition and his total faith in a lost cause, his easy relationship with his son, flitting from exasperation to camaraderie means the film never descends into misery. Instead, it is genial, enigmatic and warm. And in the end, that signature Payne pain subsides and the quest is very worth it. Thank a beautiful script and two brilliant performances, guided by one of the greatest directors alive today.
– Oliver Drew