Wrinkled faces and fading business signs: The American Midwest is a landscape of worn-out visages in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. Both are physical indicators of a disappearing sensibility that stands at odds with the loud, vivacious and dynamic experience of post-modern urban living.
Things are quiet here, lacking in melodramatic trappings and aggressive images. Yet this is no utopia; Nebraska's aged bodies and decomposing commercial emblems represent an ignored portion of the country struggling to even maintain a façade of fortitude.
Personifying this connection is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a grouchy retiree who believes he's won a million dollars in a Publisher's Clearing House-type sweepstakes. Determined to collect, he spends the first act attempting to walk to Lincoln from his home in Billings, Mont. Spurned by his verbose firecracker of a wife, Kate (June Squibb), who belittles his efforts, Woody grows increasingly desperate. Then youngest son David (Will Forte) finally steps in to drive his father.
Their road trip ties in with similar sequences so integral to Payne's other films. Like the wine country tour in Sideways and the Hawaiian countryside trek in The Descendants, this drive is simply a MacGuffin for conflicted characters to confront decades of silent trauma. This comes to a head when they spend a weekend layover in Woody's hometown, a quaint micro-universe that harbors both saviors and serpents from his past. Most of the latter are close family.
As news of Woody's winnings spreads, he and David find themselves pinned against a wall of passive-aggression by relatives asking for handouts. Mysterious old debts are called in, and opportunism seems to rise up from the cracks of Main Street. Unfortunately, Payne takes this opportunity to craft some truly abrasive characterizations, painting the desperation of stagnant souls in judgmental comedic strokes.
Thankfully, the director balances them out with equally caring bit players from Woody's past, people who are genuinely thrilled for the opportunity to see the man again. Most notable is an ex-girlfriend named Peg (Angela McEwan), who runs the local newspaper. In a stunningly candid scene she shares with David, Peg quietly recounts how she lost Woody to Kate decades before simply because she wasn't as formidable a personality. Her quiet melancholy flickers for only a moment, though, before transitioning to an equally matched fondness she feels for the man who eventually became her husband, now passed away but still ever on her mind.
Woody himself has seemingly repressed most of his memories. When asked about Peg, he at first denies remembering her, but then tells his son, "That was a long time ago." For Payne, one's level of happiness is determined by whether you give up resentment or let it fester.
With so much subtext in every scene, the film's at its best during silent moments traversing the hypnotic and vast landscape. Favoring panoramas and shot in pristine black-and-white, it makes a point to establish an expansive sense of space that allows its characters the proper distance to stew.
There's a lot of room to get lost — in thoughts, regrets and uncertainty about the future. Yet by the end Woody and David do finally find a foothold to re-discover the lack of pride that has decimated their family. In Nebraska, this is as close to the American Dream as anyone's going to get.