There is a slender but focused plot to the latest comedy by Alexander Payne, Nebraska. But it seems fairly clear that the story is ultimately a means to an end. That’s not to imply that Payne is indifferent to the lives of his characters or the themes that shape their journey. He commits himself just fine to tracing the fragile bonding of elderly Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) as they take a road trip from Billings, Montana towards Lincoln, Nebraska, where Woody is convinced that he will receive a million dollar sweepstakes prize promised to him by a magazine subscription solicitation he received in the mail. Even there, though, the parts of the story that clearly engage Payne the most offer a sightline to his main curiosity: the quiet stasis of small town American life.
While Lincoln is the destination, Woody and David get waylaid in the tiny town they once called home, a community with just over a thousand residents, according to the sign at the border. There, Woody’s situation becomes more complicated as news of his pending riches–which David knows is a falsehood, but he’s humored his father with the road trip partially with hopes of reconnecting–begins to stir up old resentments and other machinations from those hoping to cash in on the good fortune of an old friend. Then again, there are plenty of townsfolk who cheerily celebrate his supposed windfall without even the merest inkling of hoping to personally profit, and that cuts to the crux of why Woody has bought so heavily into this fantasy: it gives him a late-in-life opportunity to finally know what victory tastes likes.
While Woody’s gradual turn towards the inner peace that comes from exterior validation provides the film its positive progress–at least positive progress of the melancholy, half-measure sort favored by Payne–it is the accumulation of details that it most moving. Though the film was actually written by Bob Nelson (the first film of Payne’s on which he has no screenwriting credit), this is Payne’s part of the country. He knows these people and he knows these towns, the nights at the local family restaurant and the local newspaper office housed in a cramped wood-paneled room, the whole history of the town in scraps of paper stacked on shelves and stuffed in cubby holes. This is where family reuniting for the first time in years has little to say to each beyond reminiscences of cars owned decades earlier, traded in curt commentaries while all faces remain pointed at the same televised football game. It’s about people who’ve stayed in one place for so long that they can’t quite recall if they ever even thought about leaving. As a document of a part of the country where progress hasn’t really taken hold, a part that is far larger than any parts of the media typically acknowledge, Nebraska is priceless.
In other regards, the film still does pretty well by itself. Dern finds deep reserves of aching pathos as Woody, surveying his life with an addled reticence as his last days drain away, and June Squibb is a popping, profane wonder as his wife, comically speaking her mind and leveling a uncompromising certainty of self at anyone who dare tamper with her. There are issues, too, such as Payne’s choice to shoot in black and white, which doesn’t actually contribute any to the film in terms of mood or purpose. And Forte, while he holds his own as David, doesn’t really have the skill set to get at the character’s own longing. That’s in line with Payne’s pursuit of naturalness, which leads him to cast amateur actors in several roles, usually to good effect but with the occasional moment when the lack of craft shows. That holds its own dedication to the small town ethos, of course, evoking the community theater spirit that implicitly argues that anyone can be an actor, anyone can touch the collective heart of the audience given the right opportunity. There are plenty of moments in Nebraska when Payne and his collaborators back up that notion with flickering proof that refutes all arguments against.