Opening on the image of the classical Paramount logo in stark black and white, Nebraska immediately signals to the audience that they are in for a movie filled to the brim with a sense of nostalgia for things gone by. Evoking a time when both life and American movies weren’t so quick and aggressive, Alexander Payne has crafted a film that offers a far less cynical take on its subject than he is generally known for.
Following the journey of a father and son’s road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the father hopes to redeem an obviously bogus voucher for a $1,000,000 prize, the film presents a heartfelt story of a son coming to understand the emotional depth of his seemingly mindless father. Most of the film, however, occurs in the hometown of Woody Grant, the father played with a brilliant subtlety by veteran actor Bruce Dern. Here we learn of Woody’s history, his past dreams and failures, and ultimately of what would motivate such a man to want to get to Lincoln in the first place.
Employing a mixture of professionally trained actors and non-actors, Payne paints a town of characters that feels alive and relatable. Although much of the acting is notable, the performance from Will Forte as the son felt heavily calculated and his presence on the screen was sometimes felt in a way that broke the spell of a film that seemed concerned above all else with presenting its characters as “real” people.
Unlike most of Payne’s films, which typically employ more dynamic, fast-paced camera movements and editing techniques, Nebraska is comfortable with simply placing the camera in a still, wide shot and allowing the audience to view its characters and environments without the amount of intrusion normally associated with modern day American filmmaking. The rich contrast of the black and white cinematography from Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael is reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realist cinema and early independent American film artists like Jim Jarmusch. Nebraksa, much like Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), paints the Midwest landscape to reflect the sense of melancholy that seems to permeate the lives of the people who inhabit it. Whether a small town tavern or a country farm house, every shot is filled with a sense of nostalgic sadness that reflects the tone of the main character’s story perfectly.
Though the slow pacing of the film often works to its advantage, the first third of the film occasionally drags. Many of the early scenes are dominated by the less than stellar performance of Will Forte, the Saturday Night Live veteran who seems out of his element in this film. Once his screen time begins to be counter-balanced with the commanding performances of Dern and the other cast members, the film takes on a life of its own.
Though Nebraska lacks the degree of cynicism that Payne’s films are known for, it is not void of it altogether. The film conveys many characters who wish to take advantage of Woody Grant and his presumed new riches, including family, old rivals and friends. The film maintains a complex duality between the comforting idea of a sincere and supportive hometown community and the realistic awareness of the many scavengers and imposters that lurk within. It is here that Nebraska feels more reminiscent of previous Payne works. For the first time in his career Payne did not pen the screenplay of his work, although he has admitted to doing minor rewrites on screenwriter Jim Taylor’s screenplay. The differing sensibility in some of the dialogue is apparent. Sincerity takes precedence over wit, a trait that distinguishes Nebraska from the director’s other films.
With a slow start, and a touching but overly sentimental finale, Nebraska is a satisfying film that barely misses the mark of greatness that is now expected of any film bearing the name of Alexander Payne.