Alexander Payne’s new film demonstrates the artistic virtues of modesty. His last two films, as well made as they were, disappointed: with About Schmidt, a loose meandering narrative winds up woefully pretentious; but with his next film, The Descendents, a tighter focus didn’t help because the dramatic payoff was so weak. Finally, Payne discovers his strengths again. Nebraska benefits from its control of tone and structure, guiding us through a simple story of a son’s newfound connection to his elderly father. The modesty pays off because we become absorbed by believable characters who are presented in the simplest dramatic terms. Bob Nelson’s script never hits a false note. The resolution of the story satisfies because nothing is falsely intensified for a cheap emotional payoff. We see that only one of its characters, the son, changes at all during the course of the film, which must have been a hard sell to producers because audiences have become so used to being spoon-fed the uplift of phony reconciliations.
The story concerns Woody, a feeble, elderly drunk (Bruce Dern) barely surviving with his scolding wife, Kate (June Squibb), on their farm. His son, David (Will Forte), a neer-do-well himself, is at least not self-destructive like his dad, but is only able to hold down a sales job he hates, and has no real relationships. When Woody mistakenly thinks he won a million dollars, he browbeats David into driving him to Omaha to collect his “winnings”. David does it to humor him, even though he dreads the moment when Woody learns the truth. Along the way, they encounter the people that Woody knew from his past, a collection of aimless, mean-spirited losers who stayed in the town he had left years before. Dim bulbs all, with two exceptions: Ed (Stacy Keach), the dominant force in the town, who is even more mean-spirited, but cunning and dishonest enough to rule the roost, and Peg (Angela McEwan), Woody’s first girlfriend, who has stayed to run the town paper.
Filmed in black and white, with minimal camera movement, Nebraska shows the extent that people can become attached to the land, and how it diminishes them. The sky in the American plains is vast and oppressive; the land is barren, without promise. Why do they stay? We get no clear answer to that, and a good thing too. Any person of average intelligence could give a theory of about it – say, the need to be near family, the comfort of the familiar – but to have a character actually say those things would be fatal. Payne lets the story bring the audience to that conclusion, through the skills of his cast. There are a number of “Leo McCarey” moments. My favorite is when Kate visits the town graveyard and repeats, with absolute delight, every salacious bit of gossip she can recall about those buried there.
Whatever Bruce Dern’s Oscar chances, we already know it’s the role of his career. He is especially fine near the end, when he tells his son what he wanted the money for. This speech forges a steel resolve in his son, leading to the film’s climax. Part of the film’s success is in seeing just how pathetic Woody’s “triumph” really is, but why it is so important to him anyway. But the most important character is David, who actually discovers new strengths in himself; nobody else discovers much of anything. Will Forte is certainly appealing, but only adequate in the role. He’s not “there” yet. He doesn’t yet convey the sense of someone being tested from within, so that David’s final gesture is fully prepared for, even as it surprises.