Anybody familiar with Alexander Payne’s canon would know that this man doesn’t belt out loud, grandstanding cinematic statements but rather offers microcosm of human misanthropy through the hybrid of drama and comedy. From the terrific Citizen Ruth, the sublime Election (which remains his undisputed masterpiece), the screwball hilarity of Sideways and the mildly entertaining, if a little overpraised, The Descendants, things have worked out well so far for Payne, carving a niche for himself in Hollywood indie filmmaking, drawing admiration and indifference in almost equal measure depending where you look in the industry. His latest effort sees him dropping colour and goes for the monochromatic arthouse a la mode, further steering his dynamics out of mainstream filmmaking for the greater good.
I’ve seen Nebraska in Cannes earlier this year, and my memory of it is as crisp as its sterling cinematography. Open Nebraskan skies and vast plains, long-winded roads decked with dusty, forgotten towns, Bruce Dern’s craggy, miserly face, all of it captured in stark black-and-white clarity with the feel of a classic American road movie that folks don’t make anymore. The aesthetics chosen here seems a mere affectation at first, but it signals a stripped-down, back-to-basics affair for Payne, focussing instead on its minimal, misanthropic tale of a curmudgeon’s futile search for his lottery winnings. While it’s no masterwork, it wryly captures family dynamics and small-town morass with sharp, perceptive writing. It also features grumpy old people swearing, and I have a soft spot for grumpy old people swearing so it’s quite a treat to see this one.
It also helps that Dern, who bagged the Best Actor prize in Cannes, an actor whose previous work do not measure to his own pedigree, gives a remarkably convincing performance here – anchoring this road movie with an emphatically poignant heart as the quietly determined Woody Grant. Dealing with dementia and utterly convinced of the delusion of a bag of wealth waiting for him across America, with Will Forte playing an almost thankless role as the chaperone son who helps collect the imaginary jackpot, Dern conveys a near-incredible sense of pathos that makes us nonetheless root for this father-and-son duo and all the shenanigans they get upto. Add in June Squibb’s hilariously foul-mouthed mother, who doesn’t even spare those already in their graves. She’s the film’s joyful source of bile, and the voice of reason which everyone ignores. As inherently funny the script can be, the shrewdness of Payne is that he never forgets that the kind of laughter to be had here comes from a deeper place – the universal truth of fathers determined to leave their legacy to their sons, no matter how inconsequential it might be.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne | CAST: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk | SCREENPLAY: Bob Nelson | DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures| RUNNING-TIME: 115 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: USA