I’m not quite sure how to review Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska. It’s not because it is a difficult or experimental film, on the contrary, it is a very straightforward and simple narrative. It did, however, impact me in a very personal way. It is far from being a perfect film, and I can see some of the problems its detractors might point out, but I think it is a masterfully constructed film that packs an emotional punch as strong as strong as Payne’s best films.
When Alexander Payne rose to prominence, he was known for his cynical and dark humor. The film that brought him fame, Election, is also his darkest. As his career has gone on, though, he has become a much warmer and sentimental director. He has retain the edge and darkness of his humor, but in recent years, he has tried to make more humanistic films. This was clear in his last movie, The Descendants, which I found to be kind of a disaster. It seemed to me like the director wasn’t comfortable with the director he was becoming. In Nebraska, however, he seems to have found, for the most part, a perfect balance between genuine emotion and cynical humor.
The film focuses on the relationship of David (Will Forte) and his senile father Woody (Bruce Dern). Woody has received a letter in the mail that says he has won a million dollars. Despite his family trying to convince him that the letter is nothing but a scam, Woody is determined to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize. A series of circumstances, including the desire to put this whole thing to rest, then, make David agree to drive his father all the way to claim his prize. The most important plot development in the film -and this isn’t really a spoiler- is that David and his dad have to stop for a few days in Hawthorne, the small town where Woody grew up.
Once in Hawthorne, the movie reveals what it really is about. We have seen movies about sons reconnecting with his fathers before, but Nebraska does this in what I can only describe as a beautiful way. This small town is a place where time doesn’t seem to go by, where David can discover who his parents are. The idea of realizing your parents are human is nothing new, but Payne, along with screenwriter Bob Nelson, turns this journey into a true emotional epic. This is obviously a story about family, but also about people finding who they are and relating and connecting to each other in the most minimal ways. It is about the journey and about the goal, and it all comes together in a fantastic final sequence.
Some detractors to the film have said Payne is unsympathetic to the “simple” lifestyle of his midwestern characters. It’s true that some of them can feel like sketchy cartoons at times, but I think that actually works in the film’s favor this time. It’s important to note that most of these characters are the inhabitants of Hawthorne. I think it’s essential to the film that this place seems like a Twilight Zone-like ghost town, through which David has to dig in order to find the roots of who his parents (and his dad in particular) used to be and are and how that has and will affect the way he is leading his life.
Some of the more cartoony elements don’t always work. There is a scene at a cemetery that I think is hugely important to the film’s themes, but also ends with a gag that really didn’t work for me. For the most part, though, the movie is very funny and very effective in delivering its message. Most importantly, though, it is very effective in making the audience feel. The final moments of Nebraska might feel a little expected from the start, but after all that we’ve seen, they feel genuinely earned. The very last shot of the film, is brilliant.
Grade: 7 out of 10