Nebraska is Alexander Payne's follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Descendants, a film that fancied itself full of Capital Letter Statements about marriage, fatherhood, and what one generation owes to the next. The Descendants was a film I strongly disliked, because for all its ambition it both played as a celebration of midlife freak-outs and seriously misused the talents of George Clooney. Nebraska is a retrenchment, a film of simpler concerns that reveals a new tenderness in Payne while also falling back on some familiar moves. Woody (Bruce Dern) wants to travel from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect a million dollar prize he thinks he has won in a magazine sweepstakes. It's clear almost from the start that Woody hasn't actually won anything, but after he makes a few abortive attempts to make the trip on foot it falls to Woody's son David (Will Forte) to drive his father to Lincoln. The heart of Nebraska is a detour that Woody and David make to Woody's childhood hometown, where an ill-timed comment leads to family, friends, and an old rival (Stacy Keach) learning about Woody's potential winnings.
I recently saw a good production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which posits that the physical hardships and isolation of life in Middle America have a psychological effect that crosses generations. (Letts calls this "having the Plains".) Nebraska screenwriter Bob Nelson doesn't spell it out - these characters aren't as articulate as Letts' are - but he holds a similar view. There's a sadness and a sluggishness in Woody, exacerbated by his drinking, that has passed to both David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David is attempting to refuse his inheritance, he's trying to drink less and get serious about a relationship, and Nebraska is to a large degree the story of him coming to an understanding of his father. Will Forte plays David with a sweetness and an understatement that bodes well for his career, and his performance is a good counter to the broad comic turn by June Squibb as Woody's wife Kate. Squibb is this year's most unfairly derided Oscar nominee; her performance is scaled to what Dern and Forte are doing and she works well as part of the ensemble. (She's also the most purely entertaining person in the film.) Bruce Dern deserves the acclaim he's getting for this role, it's an interior performance that's detailed and very moving. A visit to Woody's abandoned house is Dern's best moment, his expression and few words say as much about life on the Plains as anything in August: Osage County
Of course Nebraska has to have an ending, and it's here the movie loses a bit of its footing. We're not really owed an explanation for why Woody insists on going to Lincoln but we get one and it's about what you'd expect. I never thought for a moment that Keach's character (a jealous ex-business partner) would follow through on his threats, so the final shot of his character is a twist of the knife we didn't need. There is also a buffoonish pair of cousins with a claim on the million bucks who really belong in one of Payne's earlier films, but I'm quibbling. Nebraska is a film about the mystery of the past and the uncertainty of the future, and it's also the start of something new for Alexander Payne.