When you look back now on Election, Alexander Payne’s breakthrough movie and second film, it stands out as the true oddball, evidence of a director with all the tools who doesn’t exactly know yet the stories he wants to tell. Since then, however, he has narrowed his focus.
His films are led by decent men undone by bad luck, sometimes on all sides.
The maturation for Payne began with About Schmidt, accelerated with Sideways, gained more confidence with The Descendants, and rises to yet another level with Nebraska. While the screenplay by Bob Nelson is outstanding and the performances are understated and memorable, this is truly Payne’s baby.
There’s no George Clooney or Jack Nicholson around to shoulder the load, just crazy old Bruce Dern playing a character ideally suited for crazy old Bruce Dern, elegiacally photographed in stark black and white.
Dern plays Woody, a quiet-but-cantankerous drunk who believes he’s won a million dollars from the sweepstakes people. Because his wife (June Squibb, like Dern, a likely Oscar nominee) sees through the scam, Woody decides to walk from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. His son (Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte) decides to drive dad to Nebraska instead, and thus a road trip movie is born, with a prolonged stopover in Woody’s hometown.
There are old scores to settle, old skeletons take out of the closet for air, and old wounds to heal.
Payne effortlessly reveals big laughs, poignancy, and outright heartache from a simple story that requires much less. He trusts Dern and Forte – hardly a dream team on paper – and they deliver. The sights and sounds, courtesy of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and songwriter Mark Orton, tie everything together perfectly.
Nebraska may not have the sizzle of award hopefuls like Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, but it’s every bit as accomplished and satisfying.
Nebraska, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R, 115 mins.