There’s something distinctly American about the road movie; the open spaces and plain vistas evoke a sense of freedom and mobility. The constant hunt for a destination, inherent to the genre, reflects the perpetual seach for the American Dream. Nebraska—Alexander Payne’s new film—is a road movie at its core. Over the past decade, Payne, director of Election, Sideways and The Descendents, has emerged as the greatest American director to tell contemporary dramas following the mundane dreams of American citizens. He habitually expresses themes regarding the American Dream, which is inextricably tied to the road movie, in his films. Election illustrates political dreams, Sideways portrays artistic dreams and The Descendents displays ancestral dreams. In his darkly comedic form, Payne recounts in Nebraska a dream of a bygone America. With nostalgia emanating from the crisp black and white images, this poem to the past might be his most complex, poignant and best work to date.
The film opens with the white-haired Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a dementia-ridden disappointment from Billings, Montana, wandering down a highway. When a policeman asks where he is headed, the senile Woody replies, “to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect my million dollars.” Deluded into believing he has won $1 million in sweepstakes winnings through a scheming letter, Woody stubbornly refused to give up until he reaches his native state of Nebraska to collect his earnings. His entire family attempts to explain to him that the letter he received is a complete sham. When asked what he would do with the money, Woody announces that he will buy a new truck, even though he can’t drive. Kate (June Squibb), his hilarious, scene-stealing wife who is in herself a reason to see the film, sasses her “useless” husband with rude remarks: “I didn’t even know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it.” One son, successful and married news anchorman Ross (Bob Odenkirk), wants to put his father in a nursing home. The other son, David (Will Forte), is more empathetic and doesn’t see the harm in indulging his dad’s fantasy for the little time he has left. An unsuccessful bachelor who sells speaker systems, David doesn’t want to follow his dad’s path as an unemployed alcoholic.
Much to the chagrin of his family, David reluctantly agrees to drive his dad to Nebraska. The pair, coping with an already strained relationship, stops in Woody’s rural birthplace of Hawthorne, Nebraska to visit relatives and long-lost friends. It doesn’t take long for word of Woody’s “fortune” to emerge, transforming him into a local celebrity. Despite David’s insistence that the prize is bogus, the town’s citizens believe Woody; each extend his or her own unfulfilled ambitions onto his newfound wealth. Old business partners and distant family members selfishly demand for a cut of the nonexistent cash. A personal and professional failure, Woody emits an apathetic attitude toward everything, seldom listening to the snide remarks towards him, due to his deteriorating mental state. His winnings thus act as gesture of redemption for this simpleton, because for once in his life people finally care about him.
Dern deserves an Academy Award win for his amazingly retrained performance in which he barely speaks but communicates multitudes. Payne slowly yet masterfully reveals hidden information about Woody’s past life in Hawthorne: he was an emotionally scarred war hero, town drunk, and owner of a failed automobile garage business. As David learns more about his father and what led to his departure from Hawthorne, he begins to understand why Woody is so adamant about receiving his money. He sees that his father’s delusions aren’t a reflection of his ignorance, but rather indicate his determination to make something out of his life while he still has the chance. He believes his winnings might make up for his failure as a husband, father and friend. This is all very subtly hidden within the quiet skyline landscapes that frame the film; a lesser film would be much more overstated about Woody’s reasoning.
The film surprisingly incorporates many humorous moments of bucolic Mid-Western folk. Nebraska, known to most as a flyover state, is the childhood home of Payne, and the plainspoken individuals of his youth inspired the caricatures who people this film. Payne saturates the film with darkly hilarious examples of rural ennui: old men who lazily spend their nights at the same bar for decades, a delinquent pair of middle-aged cousins who speak only of fast cars, family renunions in which working-class men stare at the T.V. and grasp a bottle of beer—things stay stagnant in rural Middle America.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael inserts stunning montages of wide-open Middle-America prairieland, deteriorated Main Streets and sweeping highways, all essential images to the road movie experience. Compared to Payne’s previous lackluster point-and-shoot compositions, Nebraska substantially advances in visual sophistication. The black and white cinematography enhances the film’s muted tone; monochrome photography represents an aesthetic that is as stuck in the past as Woody’s troublesome past decisions.
The film’s father-and-son bonding aspect fits the “buddy movie” genre convention of the road movie. As the two drive across panoramic terrain in pursuit of a nonexistent prize, they learn things about each other and gain a newfound understanding that wasn’t possible during their previously distant relationship. This isn’t to say that their relationship progresses into perfect understanding; nothing can change the fact that Woody was a bad father.
Woody’s concluding drive through Hawthorne—as his old companions curiously look on from the sidewalk—is an emotional drive through the past. Although Woody’s dream of receiving $1 million never transpires, his drive down Main Street is the manifestation of his American Dream—for once, he isn’t seen as a failure and can enjoy the spotlight. Like most road movies, Nebraska inevitably focuses more on what is learned during the drive than what is received from the destination.
Retaining the same sardonic wit that makes his films so successful, Payne creates a film much more down to earth than his other works. Nebraska’s melancholic, subdued vision effectively transports the viewer to a world of sadness and warmth, family and fortune, past and future—a future that is viewed out of a car windshield, manifested as a vanishing point in the horizon.