Nebraska opens as a scruffy and unremarkable drama about an unkempt and bitter old-timer called Woody, who after receiving a lottery coupon in the mail decides to head off from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska − his home state − to collect the prize. Without a valid driver's licence and against the will of his wife and sons, he sneaks off and starts walking the distance − until his youngest son reluctantly agrees to drive him there.
This is the point at which Nebraska comes alive, with all its multifaceted aspects of life as seen through the eyes of the world-weary, reactionary father, and the still semi-hopeful, open-eyed son, who wants to understand and build bridges between the old and new, between the reclusive and the forward-looking, between whom the gap is increasing, argues this film. And so what Woody's trip is about is not really collecting the lottery prize (which his son repeatedly tells him most likely is a scam), but about regaining his once burgeoning self-respect and the feeling of youth in which everything seems possible. The small-town he left behind years ago (with the fictional name of Hawthorns, Nebraska) represents the many American small-towns which at that time, during the 50s, 60s and 70s, mirrored Woody's feeling of youth and optimism. They were at the forefront of the technological development, flourishing in a solid post-WWII economy, and depopulation had not yet hit in. When Woody returns today, the town is filled with old-timers like himself and passive, uneducated youths (like his ridiculous cousins), and their common sentiment is one of bitterness, hopelessness and apathy. The world has left them behind, which is exactly how Woody has been feeling. And so when he tells them that he has won the lottery, his rejuvenation by this news is shared by his old friends. Through Woody they, and in turn the old town, comes to life again.
Alexander Payne has long since established himself as one of the most interesting filmmakers of today. Not only does he write brilliant and believable characters, but he also sees them in a wider perspective and with a lot of affection. His films are often bittersweet and romantic at the same time, something that goes for both his brilliant Sideways from 2004 and his most recent The Descendants. When he now returns to making a film set in his home state (for the first time since About Schmidt), there's a tangible extra personal connotation to it as well. Payne is not only worried about Woody, he is also worried about the US in general and small-town America in particular. Nebraska represents a restoration of pride for both his protagonist and his roots. But it is also a warning cry about the state of affairs in rural America − granted with a large portion of humour and an underlying optimism, which always is the case with Payne's films.
Nebraska is helped along by brilliant performances, notably by Bruce Dern in the lead, who at times seems so lost that I'm not quite sure if he is acting or if he is just appearing, and by comedian Will Forte, who does ever so well cast against type here. His sardonic glances and comments is the perfect balance to an otherwise rather sombre mood. And it's the mood that really sets Nebraska apart, becoming almost a character of its own here, both through Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white cinematography, but more importantly through the wonderful musical score by Mark Orton (of Tin Hat). That he was not nominated for an Academy Award is nothing short of a travesty. There's also a breakout performance by June Squibb that I came to enjoy immensely. Much like Woody, her Kate is not an easy character to make likeable, but she eventually manages it. And like her, the film and Payne's message grows stronger and stronger throughout, until it culminates in a delightful and appropriate finale. A fitting farewell if there ever was one.