Movie Review: Nebraska- The Latest Whimsical Tale from Alexander Payne is a Subtle and Poetic Reflection on the Loss of Time and the Affirmation of Hope

Bruce Dern as Woody in a film still from NebraskaTime is a peculiar yet universally felt concept whose effects can be seen in its numerous consequences either through the obvious traits of aging or the far more subtle and subjectively felt intangibles such as regret. In the heart of the Midwest there are depressingly poetic examples of this thoroughly felt concept of time how the vast stretches of what appears to be infinite plains of nothing are filled with monuments of ruin either in the ghost town cities or the deserted farmland all of which are consequences of economic hardship and familial anchors. This is the melancholic setting of Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska, a sad yet endearing road trip film that becomes a sort of modern Don Quixote influenced story where a regret filled, dementia gaining father resembling the infamous dreamer Quixote resiliently chases the remnants of a thin dream accompanied by his affably neutered son serving as the loyal Sancho Panza. Nebraska clearly resembles previous films that have captured the distinct American spirit and eccentric characters of the parched Midwest, including Peter Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show and David Lynch’s oddly accessible The Straight Story, but remains uniquely an Alexander Payne film containing his penchant for mixing whimsically dry humor with poignant humanity. At the center of Payne’s film is an astonishingly subtle performance from experienced acting veteran Bruce Dern whose stern blankness and aging dementia makes for an intriguing parallel to the derelict environments throughout the Midwest setting which is captured brilliantly through cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s poetic black & white imagery. This whimsical yet mournful ode to Midwestern life, values, and legacy is aided through the lost art of subtle acting and the usually non-existent talent for subtle direction allowing the intended humor to land directly and the emotional heart to enter gracefully. While Nebraska might be an engaging, humorous, and sweet amalgamation of Payne’s previous works where the road trip element of Sideways meets the intimate family dynamic of The Descendants it’s definitely a transition film for the quirky storyteller as it embraces a far more poetic and humanist side to the director’s incredibly heartfelt style of filmmaking. It’s difficult to say where exactly Nebraska will fall in Payne’s established film canon but as it stands on its own it’s a deeply lyrical reflection on the loss of time and a credible affirmation on the long enduring existence of hope.

That balancing act between quirky humor and deep human drama has been a distinct aspect within all of Payne’s films all the way from his early development comedic years with Citizen Ruth and Election to the more emotionally centered Sideways and The Descendants. However, with Nebraska, it is Payne’s first time fully trusting another writer’s material and embracing the disconsolate tone coupled with deviations of wit layered throughout the subtle father-son tale allowing the film to fit comfortably alongside his own written works in style, humor, and mood. Bob Nelson’s script follows Woody T. Grant (Bruce Dern), a drunkard curmudgeon with an increasing case of dementia living in Billings, Montana who believes that he has won one million dollars in a sweepstakes over in Lincoln, Nebraska and sets out on foot to claim it. Obsessively determined to the point of risking his own well-being, Woody is allowed to embark on his hope filled quest with the supervision of his affably disconnected son David Grant (Will Forte). Though the film’s plot and presentation could never be considered busy, even drifting towards the intended extreme of moving as slow as molasses, there’s a great deal of thematic poetry, eccentric characters, and heartfelt compassion that can be found deep within the subtle portrait of the Midwest that Nelson and Payne paint together. It seems Nelson’s script aspires to present a paradoxically adoring and mournful look at the economically downtrodden yet robust familial growth of the Midwest, which he does with a poignant human look at a disconnected father-son relationship set amidst the infinite plains of dilapidated farms and cities. Woody’s determination, even if thin in believability, is a firm testament to the human spirit of hope that strikes an increasingly poetic chord in the melancholy surroundings of the Midwest making him a fitting reincarnation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote as he chases a dementia heightened dream with a skeptical son. Nebraska’s plot builds with emotional subtlety and grace that has intermittent bouts of genuine humor allowing it to overcome its intentionally languid pace in order to be a thought provoking contemplation on the loss of time and the definite affirmation of hope showcased in the human spirit.


Bob Nelson’s lyrical script and unconventional family road trip tale wouldn’t have found its complimentary visual grace if it weren’t for the fine direction of Alexander Payne who accentuates all of the intended themes and relationships via his subtle and selective filmmaking attributes. Payne isn’t a filmmaker who thrives on overexpression and instead guides his films delicately with purposeful scenes that build to a heartfelt coherent conclusion demonstrating his unique ability to depict the natural flow of life with genuine humor layered through beautifully constructed drama. Whether he’s capturing the shocking comedic confessions of Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) on her potential sexual exploits or the dramatic weight of years on Woody’s sunken expression there is always a purposeful touch that never allows wasted space in the film even when certain sequences are intentionally drawn out, such as the family wasting away in front of the television starring directly at the camera. Visually Nebraska is presented in a fairly simple presentation but with perceptive intention attempting to bridge the poetic tone of the script with equally lyrical imagery done so through Phedon Papamichael’s phenomenal choice to showcase black & white cinematography. It’s not an extravagant work of visual style but it’s a work of calculated patience that aesthetically compliments the story’s depth, the plain environments, and the saddened tone that lingers throughout the entire film. Another carefully chosen technical element of the film is in Mark Orton’s equally simple score that never dominates the image but always craftily enhances the mood that Payne wishes to instill throughout the entire Nebraska experience. Nebraska might not be written by Payne but his distinct subtle and reserved cinematic style, where story, mood, and character take precedence over everything else, makes it a fitting addition to his canon and sees him perfecting his ability to create engaging films that balance dramatic intimacy with whimsical humor. In the hands of another director this film would have lost a great deal of its comedic charm, poignant connection, and poetic atmosphere and it’s refreshing to see a modern filmmaker who is perfecting his reserved craft and slowly becoming a master of the cinematic medium.

Another aspect of film where Alexander Payne undoubtedly thrives is in the arena of obtaining gripping performances from his usually diverse casts always pushing them to deliver authentic reactions of the evocative or reserved variety evident throughout all of his films, including Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and now Nebraska. In Nebraska there is a cast with a median age of well over 50 that gives the film an incredibly unique atmosphere filled with incredibly natural performances that are delivered with subtlety rather than with emotional intensity. This is especially true with the central performance from acting veteran Bruce Dern who effectively uses the crevices of his face and the haunting experience within his eyes to evoke far beyond the restraints of physical acting can accomplish. Coming from an era of working with Elia Kazan, Roger Corman, and a plethora of other experienced filmmakers, Dern has had years of depicting a multitude of roles but has never been given the chance to control an entire film the way he carefully reserves his presence in Nebraska. This isn’t a performance that showcases the flair for the melodramatic because it’s a careful exercise of never revealing the inner workings of what is being chosen in the acting process. Alongside Dern is comedian Will Forte in a rather unexpected role and though he competently flows through the entire film he never delivers well enough to negate the question on whether or not someone else could have done the role better. However, Forte does end up with his fair share of moments mostly because of Payne’s direction and the mere presence of Bruce Dern who carefully emotes through lack of expression and reveals his true vulnerability as a hardened man of regret when it’s only necessary. Throughout the film there are numerous scene stealers, including the Raising Arizona influenced redneck cousins and the especially humorous performance from another veteran actress June Squibb who worked with Payne in About Schmidt. Squibb as the skeptical, worrisome wife of Woody hides her true emotions through hilarious insults and uncensored thoughts delivered with exceptional spirit and vigor. The acting has its share of highlighted moments but they are all part of the overall portrait of the decayed Midwest that Payne and Nelson have created together through an emotionally connecting script and a visual palate that compliments rather than distracts.


Nebraska in its melancholic tone, atmospheric visuals, and unconventional presentation might be a bit off-putting for those unfamiliar with the quirky yet dramatic works of Alexander Payne, but it’s a fitting poetic addition to his canon of films because it embraces humanity over all other qualities. Payne is a filmmaker that focuses on the complexity of character in a rather unique subtle and reserved presentation never allowing extravagant style to interfere with the casual nature of his films and Nebraska might be his finest example of those very elements. The film certainly has moments of languid pace but the constant layering of biting humor with a poignant father-son relationship that nurtures and grows through the gracefulness of the film makes it an endearing film that reflects on a father’s regret over his loss of time and his last bit of hope to change things for the better. Nebraska has the appropriate mix of authentic humor, a saddened tone, and dramatic revelation all experienced through natural character progression making it not only a poetic depiction of the saddened yet hopeful Midwest but also a depiction of the overall feeling of humanity itself. Woody T. Grant might be a dementia fueled dreamer refusing to adhere to logic due to a determined sense of hope but his dedication to a futile dream is a life affirming journey of the human spirit. Time might be a debilitating fate in the end, one that we all experience either through aging or a crumbling environment, but hope can spring eternal and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska wishes that for us all.

Grade: A-

Side Note: This movie will be in limited release November 15th

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