My take on Alexander Payne’s films that I’ve seen is that they lament the way that masculinity is threatened or is in decline. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but they always seem to me to be very male-centric films. With Nebraska, the decline on show is very much physical, dealing as it does with the stooped and broken figure of 80-year-old Walt (played by Bruce Dern) trying to collect the million dollars he believes he’s won in a sweepstake. He’s abetted on this quest — very much reluctantly — by his son David (a hangdog Will Forte), and together they move from Montana to Nebraska, trailing back through Woody’s own family history. Still, whatever the pleasures of these two characters (and both are very well-acted), for me the film’s highlight is Woody’s cranky wife Kate (June Squibb), who is unconstrained in her criticism of both her husband and son, and their foolishness.
The film comes across as a picaresque journey through parts of America which aren’t so often seen on film, with something akin to the same laconic comedy of The Straight Story (1999). You could also refract it through a different set of musical reference points, as looking at that poster it evokes a classic rock vibe, like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen — who after all had an album of the same name, which had a sort of similarly mythic middle-American bleakness to it. In the film, having travelled to Nebraska, Walt re-connects with his brothers and their extended family, and it’s certainly not clear whether this was a worthwhile thing, especially once they learn of his ‘winnings’ and start to gently (and, in the case of his nephews, not so gently) exploit this for their own gain. In this regard, there’s a fine appearance by Stacy Keach as an old friend he meets in one of the gloomy local bars, who hides a mercenary streak behind his show of warmth.
Perhaps what’s most noticeable on first encounter, though, is the black-and-white cinematography. However, it avoids a zingy, high-contrasty effect, but rather goes for a range of greys in between, suggesting perhaps the vastness and uniformity of a lot of middle America, as well as a timelessness to its storytelling. It doesn’t go out of its way, in other words, to be showy, and just adds a further layer of wistfulness to the film’s elegiac tone.
It’s the uniformly strong acting which is the real asset of this film, although as mentioned above, I felt more warmly towards Squibb than Dern in this respect, the latter mainly doing a sort of stooped mumble and constantly having to look bewildered and confused. Will Forte is particularly good, and I don’t know why it should be that comedians (and both he and Bob Odenkirk, who plays his brother, have experience on Saturday Night Live, amongst other such shows) put across such good portrayals of lives which, if not crushed, have at least not fulfilled their potential. It’s not that the film is about unhappy people — in their ways, they all seem perfectly contented — as it’s about ones who are just fundamentally unremarkable. There are plenty of occasions that might in another movie prompt some sententious homily, but Payne thankfully never goes down that route. And as the movies goes on, we get more of a sense of the opportunities the elderly characters had earlier in their lives, and the different paths that their lives could have taken.
This isn’t a film of regrets, though. There’s a melancholy, but it never overwhelms the characters or the story. Like those reference points, it’s still fundamentally about men on a quest that brings them into contact with their insecurities and fallabilities, and if it were just the two men then I’d probably feel less warmth towards this kind of self-regarding narcissism, but I don’t know, maybe I just have a weakness for quiet stories about lost lives. I don’t want to make grand claims, but to me the film Nebraska feels like a film about how people lie to themselves to keep going in life, and the necessity of those lies.
Director Alexander Payne; Writer Bob Nelson; Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Φαίδων Παπαμιχαήλ; Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 December 2013.