Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is road movie. It’s about a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) who travel to Nebraska from Montana, in hopes of redeeming a “You’ve won $1 million!” mailing that everyone but the old man knows is a scam. The comical plot conceit aside, Nebraska is really a movie about going home, and understanding home. Like Payne’s other movies, which probe the idiosyncrasies of middle class America in places like Omaha (Election), Colorado (About Schmidt), Hawaii (The Descendants) and California’s wine country (Sideways), Nebraska is about small-town life in the Cornhusker State. Its title should indicate as much.
Filmed in black and white (a choice that both heightens the drab blah-ness of flyover country and accentuates its minimalist beauty), Nebraska has been called a minor addition to Alexander’s body of work. I think it may actually be his best film yet. Perhaps I’m biased as a Midwesterner myself. The suburban Oklahoma and Kansas of my youth are evocatively construed in the tableaus of Payne’s films, particularly Nebraska (Payne grew up in Omaha). Watching Nebraska, I recognize and identify with Payne’s love/hate relationship with the places he is from. On one hand there is a sort of “I’ve moved on” distaste, which dwells on the provincial smallness and embarrassing insulation of the yokel customs. On the other is a profound affection and nostalgia for its simplicity, slow pace and settledness in rhythms and rootedness.
Both of these perspectives are on full display in Nebraska, a film that skewers small-town life and provokes groans and grimaces throughout, yet maintains a respect and even love for its subjects. The film leads the audience to laugh at the small-minded ridiculousness of its characters, but in a way that sympathizes with them too. We almost feel guilty for laughing at them. Payne’s gaze is neither condescending nor reverent. If anything it’s a gaze that sees in others a sort of universal quirkiness; a mirror reflecting back to us the familiar flaws of a people just trying to do the best that they can.
The world of Nebraska is realistically drab, harsh, often bleak. The fictitious small town, Hawthorne, in which most action unfolds is a struggling farm community hit hard by the recession. Almost the whole populace spends their time watching football or drinking together in bars (there’s not much else to do, notes one character), reminiscing about times gone by. There’s a pervasive sense of “the best days are behind us.” Everywhere there are shuttered small businesses, rusted old machinery and dilapidated homesteads of once-great farms.
The sense of place at the heart of Nebraska is also a sense of loss. It’s a confrontation with the harsh indifference of time: generations passing, buildings crumbling, man’s finest glories fading as decades go by. Payne’s film captures, perhaps better than any I’ve seen, the feeling of returning home after a long absence and observing the hard facts of change.
For me, returning to the home of my childhood (as I am this week for Thanksgiving), is always a strange mix of continuity and discontinuity. So much is the same: the meals, the traditions, some of the neighbors and many of the local businesses. But every time I go back, so much has changed. And perhaps most jarringly: I have changed too. Nothing can call us to itself more convincingly than the memory of home, even while few things can feel so alien as time goes by.
All things are ephemeral: the places we’re from, the people we were. Nebraska captures this beautifully. It’s about the way the world around us changes, faster — but not by much — than even our own rapid aging. But Payne's film also offers hope, reminding us that love and care for one another make our struggles more manageable. In the midst of dizzying change, and our own stubborn resistance to the reality of mortality, the small kindnesses of friends and family are what give us ballast.