Payne’s next film after The Descendants was Nebraska which, like Sideways, was another road trip film. Interestingly it was the first of Payne’s films in which he wasn’t actively involved with the screenwriting and instead the script came courtesy of Bob Nelson. Payne had been touted as the director of Nebraska for many years but it was only after completing The Descendants that he decided to work on the film.
The key protagonist in the film is Woody Grant, an alcoholic man with two sons and an incredibly outspoken wife who believes he’s come into a million dollars. In fact, Nelson establishes right from the start that Woody’s money doesn’t exist and in fact it’s simply a scam set up by a magazine company. Nevertheless, Woody is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings and his younger son David decides to accompany him. In my opinion, Nebraska is as much David’s story as it is Woody’s as his reason for the trip is to get away from his Montana hometown following his recent break-up. David is another classic Payne protagonist in that he is unlucky in love, has a lowly job as a hi-fi salesman and has a lot less success than his anchorman brother. Along the way David learns that Woody never really wanted children and that he really wasn’t bothered about marrying his now wife Kate. The majority of the film’s action is set around Hawthorne in Nebraska, Woody’s hometown, where he experiences a family reunion of sorts. Despite David’s protestations, everybody believes that Woody has won the money and soon people are bothering David asking for money that they loaned to Woody at one time or another. The culmination of the film’s story is incredibly sweet-natured as Woody inevitably doesn’t get the money he started out wanting but instead gets an even better gift.
I’ve written a lot about casting choices over the course of this blog and Nebraska line-up of actors certainly benefits the film in the long run. The studio allegedly wanted big names to play the roles of Woody and David, but Payne argued otherwise. Vintage character actor Bruce Dern was chosen to play Woody and earned himself a Best Actor nomination as a result. Dern perfectly portrays Woody as a man who is detached from society for the most part, but who is revealed to have been quite the womaniser in his day. Dern is completely believable as the former alcoholic and you can absolutely understand how he’s alienated his family. I personally feel that Dern is at his best when conveying how much the prize-winning letter means to Woody as he frantically reads it throughout the film. Saturday Night Live regular Will Forte was similarly a lesser-known star but really turned in an excellent turn as the begrudgingly compliant David. Forte makes David a character who is easy to sympathise with even though you understand that he’s sometimes his own worst enemy. Completing the trio of fine performances is the wonderful June Squibb, who like Dern was given an Oscar nomination for her role as the outrageous Kate. Squibb really portrays Kate as a force-of-nature and she easily makes you believe in her character’s backstory. Nebraska is given even more charm by the fact that its shot in black-and-white which makes this traditional story seem even more old-fashioned. I personally felt that this technique really set the film apart from all of its contemporaries and it definitely felt apt for a film from Payne. Although it took a while to get going, Nebraska was funny and poignant look at father-son relationships and once again included a central male character who was detached from the rest of the world.