Lazy as a Sunday morning, Alexander Payne‘s new film drifts elegantly into your nearest cinema. Payne has established himself as the most able salesman of melancholic Americana of his generation. No one has cut to the wounded heart of middle America quite like Alexander Payne has. Election, one of his earlier films, I would count as one of the most depressing films I have seen. It wasn’t as dramatically bleak as a Haneke or Tarr; instead there was something unnervingly banal about the depiction of small town frustrations. They were all too believable, and Payne has carved out a substantial career mixing belly laughs and existential anxieties.
Nebraska, his latest winner, is another road movie following in the tracks of Sideways and About Schmidt. The American road movie often deals with outsiders, people on the periphery and unable to function in normal society. So they set out on the road, where there are no boundaries or people telling them what to do. Woody (Bruce Dern) is perhaps another of these outsiders, a bedraggled husband and father losing his mind in Montana. A devoted drinker, he is constantly nagged at by his sharp tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) and his considerate son David (Will Forte).
We first discover him shuffling along the highway, lost in his own world, much like the iconic Travis in Paris, Texas, another victim of the American Dream. David soon uncovers his father’s plot to travel across the country to cash in a winning lottery ticket. Except the million dollar ticket is merely a junk mail con. Unable to convince his father of the bogus prize, David decides to humour his ailing father by driving across the country with him. It is a simple and perfect set up to explore the American Dream; the outlandish visions of riches, the broken family and the open road.
For the first time Payne is shooting in digital black and white. It looks beautiful, by far his most visually arresting film. Choosing to shoot in monochrome is an interesting decision; I always feel it’s a bit like a rockstar taking up the acoustic guitar in that they feel it has more of a ‘purity’ to it in its starkness. The score by Mark Orton verges on being too twee but pulls it back from the brink, resulting in a quietly melancholic accompaniment.
Like his other work, Payne moves between cruder slapstick set pieces, such as a barnyard theft, and more subtle deadpan moments. In interviews the director has often offered his admiration for the silent comedies of the 20’s and you can see the influence there if you look closely enough. All of the characters and scenes are grounded in reality though; one scene that particularly ticked me was a group of old men discussing car journey lengths. As someone who has had to listen to various family members eagerly discuss which is the best route and how long it would take, this observation rang completely true.
As usual the acting is excellent, with Dern and Squibb stealing the show. Dern, who once made a career out of playing jerks in the 70’s, now looks frail and lost. With his fluffy white hair dancing over his head and his clothes drowning around him, he is a world away from the coiffured Hollywood stars we see on screen. He doesn’t emote, he barks. There is no sentimentality here. June Squibb, a relative unknown, is joyously sarky as his overbearing wife and yet we see the humanity ebbing from her by the closing credits.
There are a few minor flaws. For a film which is often so understated and subtle, there are a few on the nose moments of writing that jar with the rest of the film. In screenwriting the first and second drafts usually have these moments where the character says exactly how they are feeling, a clumsy way of the writer exploring the character’s wants and needs. But here they feel like they haven’t been fine-tuned. These, however, are small quibbles in an elegiac, funny, moving film.