Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a comedy without boffo punch lines, jokey monologues, chases, pratfalls, flights of whimsical invention, or preposterous coincidences. What it does have is incipient dementia, terminal boredom, lingering resentment, and the collapsed remains of a crib where an infant died of scarlet fever, served up with repetitive snatches of melancholy fiddle music and the sublime desolation of empty highways and decaying towns. Although working uncharacteristically with a screenplay by another writer (Bob Nelson), Payne has made a film that seems steeped in personal preoccupations and that in retrospect adds new dimensions to his earlier films.
Its premise is so bald that the film seems to run through its possibilities in the first fifteen minutes. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a disheveled old alcoholic in Billings, Montana, is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska—on foot if necessary—to collect the million-dollar prize promised by an unsolicited sweepstakes certificate from Cornhusker Marketing and Promotions, Inc. David (Will Forte), the younger of his two sons, who holds down a job selling audio equipment at the mall and whose girlfriend has just dumped him, agrees to drive him there though he finds it difficult even to keep a conversation going with his father, who speaks largely in monosyllabic dead ends.
In short order father and son are taking off down the road while Woody’s wife (June Squibb), who has already talked about putting him in a home, asks if they’ve both lost their minds. After a single day’s drive Woody has gotten drunk, lost his dentures by the railroad tracks, and sustained a head wound that lands him in the hospital. A long and minimalist road seems to loom ahead, leading through lost causes and nearly nonexistent last chances. As they proceed we are immersed in vacant panoramas of midwestern roadway, immense and beautiful images in which the eye can happily lose itself, as if that were one way to escape from a journey with no good end in sight and a father–son dialogue stuck in a start-and-stop pattern of missed connections. Such establishing shots of locations, images of serene indifferent clarity, have figured in all Payne’s films but in the black-and-white cinematography of Nebraska they achieve an overpowering eloquence.
The father doesn’t want to say much of anything; the son isn’t sure how much he really wants to know, since everything he hears disconcerts him by its resigned withdrawal. Woody wants to collect his prize and beyond that doesn’t much care about anything. What does Dave really want from him, anyway? Perhaps the self-justification of having tried to be a dutiful son; perhaps a way to avoid dwelling on the inadequacies of his own life, a life as adrift in its own way as his father’s. All this would be matter for the most lugubrious of domestic dramas. But Payne, here as in his previous films, finds…
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