Nebraska is unmistakably an Alexander Payne picture, and we get exactly what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker, but never have his films looked as good as this one. Shot in stark black and white, evoking the look of such classic American pictures like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and Lenny, Payne has made one of the most enjoyable and utterly watchable films of the year.
From the opening shot of Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant walking along the highway to begin a 900 mile journey from Nebraska to Montana, Payne's film looks stunning in its simplicity: just real locations and real people, showing that real life can be more interesting than any CGI-created universe. This is one of Payne’s better films and like all his films, characters take center stage; in Nebraska we have Woody Grant and his son David (Will Forte) taking to the road on an aimless mission to "collect" a million dollar prize that David knows is a scam.
I've never been to this part of America nor do I have a large family, but the scenes where the Grants spend time with Woody’s family in Hawthorne, Nebraska, rung true to even me. Men sit around in an almost catatonic state, barely talking, and listening even less, emphasizing a running theme of communication. David keeps telling them that Woody isn’t rich and it’s all a scam, but the townsfolk either don’t want to know or simply don't believe him. Payne shows Nebraska as willing something to happen to one of their own, regardless of the truth, and paints it as a forgotten land, living in the past. It’s a love letter to the state he was born in, but he shows it as he knows it to be true and we are happy to take that trip with his characters.
The film includes several of the themes and characteristics of Payne’s filmography. Affairs, communities, family, male identity, growing old, and discovering one’s self are commonplace in his films, especially after 1999’s Election (still, for me, his best film to date). But Nebraska is more like Sideways in tone than About Schmidt or The Descendents as it balances comedy and pathos with real skill, without either one taking over the film.
This is helped a great deal by the usual great casting his films have, and Bruce Dern gives one of the best performances of the year. Payne has said before that the 1970s have defined his film making style (which shows in Nebraska more than any of his previous films) which was a period “where acting style more approximates real life and is relatively free of contrivance and device” and this is certainly true of all performances in his latest film, not just Dern's. It’s a sheer joy to watch.
Dern’s performance, the beautiful photography, the classic Payne script, and superb score by Mark Orton (well worth downloading) make Nebraska a thoroughly enjoyable film, and one which deserves contention for a place on 2013’s ‘best of’ list.