Across the career of double Oscar winning director Alexander Payne, he has broached familiar themes, as many of his darkly comic dramas tend to involve either a road trip of sorts, or examine rudimentary family dynamics. His latest picture, Nebraska, combines both elements to create what is arguably the filmmaker’s most accomplished production yet. And considering this is the same man who brought us Sideways, that’s quite an achievement.
Bruce Dern takes on the role of Woody Grant, an elderly alcoholic who, as far as everybody else is concerned, is losing his marbles. It therefore comes as little surprise to his beleaguered wife Kate (June Squibb), that he is determined to set off on a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the million dollars he has “won”, in what appears to be a phony Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. His youngest son David (Will Forte) sympathises with his estranged father, and decides to entertain his old man’s deranged fantasy, as they embark on a road trip across America to collect a prize that doesn’t exist. However on their travels, they decide to drop in on Woody’s home town of Hawthorne and let everybody know their good news…
Beautifully presented on the big-screen in black and white, such an approach gives this timeless family tale a classic feeling. Remaining faithful to Payne’s directing style, the film balances comedy with more poignant themes, as not only is this incredibly comical and deadpan in parts, but within this narrative lies a somewhat tragic tale, and the way Payne has explored father-son relationships is nothing short of majestic. The film is naturalistic and deals with searingly real and upsetting themes, and yet there’s a surrealism that prevails, a fantastical sentiment that makes you believe anything is possible. We’re naturally apprehensive about this illegitimate fortune and dubious as to its very existence, and yet we cling on to that hope that Payne has instilled, and it’s a testament to the filmmaker and the romanticism of cinema that we continue to believe.
Dern steals the show with his hugely empathetic, nuanced and layered performance, managing to earn the respect and endearment of the viewer despite the countless flaws to his demeanour – a performance that has earnt the esteemed veteran actor an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Contending in six varying categories (including Best Picture) at the forthcoming Academy Awards, whether this film is triumphant remains to be seen – but what can’t be contested, is that whatever success this charming production may receive, it wholeheartedly deserves.