Time is a peculiar yet universally felt concept whose effects can be seen in its numerous consequences either through the obvious traits of aging or the far more subtle and subjectively felt intangibles such as regret. In the heart of the Midwest there are depressingly poetic examples of this thoroughly felt concept of time how the vast stretches of what appears to be infinite plains of nothing are filled with monuments of ruin either in the ghost town cities or the deserted farmland all of which are consequences of economic hardship and familial anchors.
Nebraska clearly resembles previous films that have captured the distinct American spirit and eccentric characters of the parched Midwest, including Peter Bogdonovich's The Last Picture Show and David Lynch's oddly accessible The Straight Story, but remains uniquely an Alexander Payne film containing his penchant for mixing whimsically dry humor with poignant humanity. To me, however, this film heavily reminded me of the work of the Coen Brothers, particularly Fargo - no bad thing at all.
That precise quality of Nebraska is why I was so drawn in (along with the excellent black and white photography); its lack of milking its story for emotions. It has the very ingredients to make a person cry from the senile father who never really was one to his children, the broken family, and the unremarkable rural life that seemingly offers no hope outside of a desolate landscape. However, just like Woody, the film looks on the brighter side of life, optimistic about the peculiar instances and finding solace in a practical adventure. It doesn't have time to waste on sappy musical cues and actors phoning in emotion; it's much too concerned for articulating the characters and the adventure at hand.
This is a very funny movie with some poignant statements to make about aging, familial relationships, and the past's influence on the present. In that way, Nebraska is just like director Payne's other road-trip movies. But Nebraska is its own story with an entirely different take on these topics.
The central relationship between Dern's stubbornly gullible dad and Forte's passively irritated son gradually deepens as the movie makes its way through middle America. What makes the film such a delight to watch are the individuality of its characters. Each one is fun to watch in their own right; the father's relentless determination, the mother's humorous outbursts, and the son's sympathy and desire to bond with his father. Nebraska reaches an emotional conclusion that echoes of About Schmidt and The Descendants with an underlying sense of lives largely squandered, but handled with grace and finesse that feels innately genuine.
Bruce Dern gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a lifelong alcoholic who has escaped inside himself, a man out of touch and seemingly untouched by any events around him. As the outspoken Kate, June Squibb is absolutely hilarious - always yelling at Woody, threatening to put him in a home, complaining about him, but just don't let anybody take advantage of him, or you'll have to deal with her.
Nebraska is an engaging, humorous, and sweet amalgamation of Payne's previous works where the road trip element of Sideways meets the intimate family dynamic of The Descendants it's definitely a transition film for the quirky storyteller as it embraces a far more poetic and humanist side to the director's incredibly heartfelt style of filmmaking. It's difficult to say where exactly Nebraska will fall in Payne's established film canon but as it stands on its own it's a deeply lyrical reflection on the loss of time and a credible affirmation on the long enduring existence of hope.