Wrinkled faces and fading business signs: The American Midwest is a landscape of worn-out visages in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. Both are physical indicators of a disappearing sensibility that stands at odds with the loud, vivacious and dynamic experience of post-modern urban living. Things are quiet here, lacking in melodramatic trappings and aggressive images.
Yet this is no utopia; Nebraska's aged bodies and decomposing commercial emblems represent an ignored portion of the country struggling to even maintain a façade of fortitude.
Personifying this connection is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a grouchy retiree who believes that he's won $1 million in a Publisher's Clearing House-type sweepstakes. Determined to collect, he spends the first act attempting to walk to Lincoln from his home in Billings, Mont. Spurned by his verbose firecracker of a wife, Kate (June Squibb), who belittles his efforts one snappy quip at a time, Woody grows increasingly desperate. Youngest son David (Will Forte) finally steps in and offers to drive his father himself.
The road trip that follows ties in with similar sequences so integral to Payne's other films. Like the wine-country tour in Sideways and the Hawaiian jungle trek in The Descendants, Woody and David's drive across state lines is simply a MacGuffin for conflicted characters to confront decades of silent trauma. This comes to a head when father and son spend a weekend layover in Woody's hometown, a quaint micro-universe that harbors both saviors and serpents from his past. Most of the latter are close family.
As news of Woody's winnings spreads like wildfire across the community, he and David find themselves pinned against a wall of passive-aggressiveness by relatives asking for handouts. Mysterious old debts are called in, and opportunism seems to rise up from the cracks of Main Street. Unfortunately, Payne takes this opportunity to craft some truly abrasive characterizations, painting the desperation of stagnant souls in judgmental comedic strokes.
Thankfully, the director balances them out with equally caring bit players from Woody's past, people who are genuinely thrilled not just by his potential success, but also for the opportunity to see the man again. Most notable is an ex-girlfriend named Peg (Angela McEwan) who runs the local newspaper.
In a stunningly candid scene with David, Peg quietly recounts how she lost Woody to Kate decades earlier simply because she wasn't as formidable a personality. Her quiet melancholy flickers for only a moment, though, before transitioning to an equally matched fondness she feels for the man who would eventually become her husband, now passed away but still ever on her mind.
Woody himself has seemingly repressed most of his memories. When asked about Peg, he at first denies remembering her, but then later tells his son, "That was a long time ago." For Payne, one's level of happiness is determined by whether you give up resentment or let it fester.
With so much subtext populating every scene, the film—which opens Friday, Nov. 29, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is at its best during silent moments traversing the hypnotic and vast landscape of the region. Favoring panoramas and shot in pristine black-and-white, it makes a point to establish an expansive sense of space that allows its characters the proper distance to stew.
There's a lot of room to get lost—in your thoughts, regrets and uncertainty about the future. Fittingly, in a story about one character's pursuit to reach a single location, multiple side trips play key roles in shaping the narrative's power. During one such tangent to Mt. Rushmore, Woody is unimpressed, finally walking away and grumbling, "We've seen it. Now we can go." Another missed opportunity.
Yet, by the end, one gets the feeling that while revelation will never come, Woody and David do finally find a foothold to re-discover the missing pride that has decimated their family. In Nebraska, this is as close to the American dream as anyone's going to get.