“Nebraska” by Alexander Payne / Cannes 2013 Review

Alexander Payne places the American dream in a car and puts the car into reverse. His intention is to help us demystify the dream, to laugh at, to forgive it. ‘Nebraska’ isn’t so much a great film, as it is a tender, black and white, personal ballad.

Woody is an alcoholic pensioner who used to run a garage in Hawthorne, Nebraska. For years, he’s been living in Montana with his nagging wife who always puts him down, corrects him and looks over him. His two boys have grown up. His older son Ross has a family and works as a news presenter at the small local TV station. His younger son David is a salesman at an electronics shop, without a relationship or any aspirations for his future. When Woody receives a letter telling him he’s won a sweepstakes prize of a million dollars he believes it and his life takes on new meaning. He wants to return to Nebraska and collect his prize. No one can convince him that the letter is a fake and a simple marketing ploy. He needs to believe it is for real. In a last resort attempt to share an experience with his aging father David agrees to drive him to Montana and so begins a road-trip into the past.

Alexander Payne also returns to his birthplace. Not only the geographical one, since he is from Nebraska and he fills the movie with small autobiographical details; but also to his cinematic origins: the style, the pace, the screenplay and the off-beat humor and the black and white film give off the impression of an independent film which has been unearthed from the not too distant past. Like an acoustic folk song which sings of the vastness of a forgotten America, of places where nothing ever happens, of farmlands and homesteads where families silently gather around television sets or at locals bars where people of all ages go to drown their time and hopeless dreams in cheap beer.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay which deals with this nothingness, reveals its characters through small occurrences and maps a slice of Americana – a sometimes unflattering look at the culture of the Midwest. Initially the film looks like it’s taking apart and demystifying the American dream and the baby boomer generation, depicting a calm and depressing tour through the American heartland.
Gradually though, Payne’s trademark tender melancholy falls over the landscapes (exquisite photography by Phedon Papamichael), over the buildings, the empty streets, the wrinkles on the face of Bruce Dern (finally in a starring role) and the disillusioned looks of the young and old, and the film begins to offer insights and an understanding of extenuating circumstances, and ultimately, proves sweetly moving.

That’s when the title’s geographical location becomes almost irrelevant. Wherever you may come from, you feel as if you are leaving behind the borders of your own private Nebraska and looking at a black and white family album. And you’re old enough to look at things without a filter, to see them for what the really are, and to grow fond of them them all over again.

Here’s a clip from the film