Director Alexander Payne squeezes humour like a pimple in his bleakest comedy to date. “Nebraska” reveals embarrassing family truths that are hard to ignore. Shot in black and white, stark desolate farms populate the Midwest plains and Interstates forming the backdrop of this unlikely tale. The quiet, persistent landscape is home to small town folk who yearn for enchanting gossip to spark excitement and jealousy. The film’s bleak and uplifting moments are reminiscent of “About Schmidt”, another Payne roadtrip saga.
Woody (Bruce Dern) is a luckless alcoholic riddled with vacant spells which indicate early stages of dementia. His marriage to an egokilling bully wife (June Squibb) shows us why Woody finds a good friend in alcohol. When Woody receives a bogus sweepstakes winner letter, he sets off on a journey to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his milliondollar prize.
Woody cannot be persuaded by his soulsearching son (Will Forte) to abandon his road trip to Lincoln. The sweepstakes winning ticket is an obvious marketing fraud - obvious to everyone except perhaps, a senior with a failing mind.
Father and son eventually hit the road and the journey turns into a family road trip that stops in Woody’s old hometown, Hawthorne. Woody’s spirited determination is laudable; all he wants from his winnings is to buy a compressor and fourwheel truck for his kids. These are modest aspirations for a man who was often written off as a financially unstable alcoholic who scrambled to repay debts by fixing automobiles. Dern inhabits such a complex role with an uncluttered and gentle performance, and deservedly earned the award for best actor at Cannes.
Despite the critical praise, this subtle film will not be universally praised. The laughs are lowkey, the pacing deliberately slow but the characters, particularly Woody and his wife are indelible. Director Alexander Payne was once described as the compassionate thinking face of American humour. Unremarkable heroes beating the odds has never felt so real.