A contemporary of David O. Russell and David Fincher, Alexander Payne doesn’t get nearly as much respect even though he is arguably a stronger filmmaker (have you seen American Hustle? It’s a train wreck disguised as a prestige picture.) Payne’s favorite subject -the ignominy of aging- has translated into some fantastic titles, including Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents.
Nebraska is the least gimmicky of the bunch and, because of its straightforwardness, the best one. Not only the film chronicles an old man last harebrained effort to attain riches, but also presents a textured portrait of America’s economic depression, today.
Bruce Dern caps five decades of work with an understated yet moving performance as Woody Grant, an elderly man with signs of dementia. Woody’s life has been unremarkable, trapped in a midsize town, with a wife he can barely tolerate and adult children with little to no interest in maintaining a relationship with him.
As reason begins to slip away, Woody buys into an advertising gimmick and believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes prize. So it begins a road trip from Billings to Lincoln to claim the reward, a journey that takes Woody back to his hometown and may restore his bond with son Davy (Will Forte, SNL), reluctantly driving him across Nebraska, headed for disappointment.
As compelling as the central narrative is, the characters –main and supporting- make the movie. Woody’s stoicism and Davy’s kindness contrast with all the rest, a bunch of malcontents proudly in the wrong. Nebraska may give the impression is mocking mid-westerners, but by their own testimony the portrait is frightfully accurate (Payne is a local). The director finds the dignity of simple people, but also criticizes their narrow-mindedness. There is plenty of humor to be found, with an undercurrent of melancholy.
Part of the brilliancy of Nebraska resides in the cinematography. The black and white approach underlines the poverty that ravages Middle America. Once up-and-coming, the Midwest looks neglected, about to be blown by the wind. Few films have captured this dark period in American history more accurately, or without rubbing it in audiences’ faces. Four lonesome dogs.
Nebraska is now playing at Rainbow Cinemas Studio 7.