Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
Few contemporary American film makers make stories of heartbreaking, soulful and touching introspective self discovery like Alexander Payne. If Paul Thomas Anderson is his generation’s Robert Altman, making sprawling multi-stranded character examination pieces, then Payne is his generation’s Hal Ashby. And Nebraska owes the biggest debt to the 1970’s new wave approach of any of his films to date. Never rushed and always deliberate, it’s a beautifully structured and gentle examination of the paradigm shift from a parent caring for their children, to the child becoming the primary carer.
In this instance that transition is complicated and driven by the naive determination of cantankerous drunk Woody Grant (a career best Bruce Dern) to collect his $1m marketing prize. His determination is further complicated by the head office of the marketing company being two states over in Nebraska. Not wanting to see his elderly father die trying to collect a phantom prize, weary long suffering son David (Will Forte in a wonderfully melancholic role) bundles his father in his battered Subaru to drive him the 1000 miles to Nebraska so that he can prove a point. Unsurprisingly what starts as a straightforward trip becomes and opportunity for David to dissect and challenge years of suppressed animosity towards a father he sees as nothing more than an emotionally repressed failure and the cause of all of his subsequent woes.
Like almost all of his other movies, particularly About Schmidt and Sideways, Payne uses tiny amounts of energy to explore themes of anxiety and the human condition. And like those movies he balances perfectly the melancholic with moments of burst out loud laughter, in this instance almost always as a result of a near show stealing performance from June Squibb as the the dominating matriarch. A scene in a graveyard where she systematically character assassinates Woody’s dead relatives while describing who tried to get in her knickers is worth the admission alone.
Almost all of his characters share a common drive to fix and intangible quality within themselves that they can’t quite reconcile. Be it regret (About Schmidt), resentment (Election) or social awkwardness (Sideways). Of all of them though Nebraska, with it’s stark monochrome and bleak countryside, leaves nothing to distract you from David’s delicate unearthing of his father’s essence, one that reveals a complexity of character betrayed by his extreme introversion.
Conclusion: A career high for a director who is rivaled by few for sheer consistency of film making
Cast: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, Bob Odernkirk, June Squibb