So the beginnings of Nebraska, which is filmed in gorgeous black and white, are a road film, Woody ornery and disoriented, David frustrated with his father but wearily tolerant of his one-last-thing fool's errand. A lifelong drinker, Woody takes a spill one night while stumbling into his motel room and winds up in the hospital. When he wakes up, David informs him that instead of going to Lincoln, they're headed to Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, a small farming community that Woody is more than reluctant to visit. But visit they do, with Kate taking a bus down from Billings and David's brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), driving in to provide backup. They reunite with Woody's many brothers and their wives, with a few cousins too, and Payne gives us a look at a small-town Midwestern family reaching the end of its line. There's a slight bitterness in the air — as there always is in Payne's films — but also a sense of wonder, at how lives trickle and ebb, days and months and years filled with both inevitability and utter randomness.
As the family revisits the past, the film oscillates between piquant humor and melancholy. In one of the movie's many lively yet doleful scenes, the family visits a graveyard where Kate gives an unmerciful but decidedly honest explanation of who is lying under each stone, secrets and lies and tragedies all related with a salty matter-of-factness that's both startling and oddly reassuring. Kate, more than anyone else in the film, seems squarely at peace with the mundanities and inane injustices of an average life; they are what they are and then everything stops, so might as well chuckle at them. In this scene and others, Squibb is a riot, but she never overplays. She's incredibly natural, perfectly blending in with the texture of the film, which features many "non-actors" (a phrase I kind of hate for its dismissiveness) alongside the pros like Squibb.
Really, though, this film belongs to Dern, who communicates oceans of resentment, regret, and despair with mere dismissive grunts or nods of his wispy-haired head. Owing to age and alcohol, Woody fades in and out of lucidity, and Dern's performance intriguingly, and sadly, suggests that Woody may occasionally be playing up his confusion as a means of escape, preferring to retreat into his batty old codger role than confront the realities of his largely unsatisfying life. It's a performance you might be tempted to call restrained, except that it's so bursting with feeling, in ways big and small. There's no line between the actor and the role, no showy bits of idiosyncratic choices or telegraphed motivation. Payne's film feels strikingly real, even in the more heightened comic moments, and is commandingly anchored by Dern's riveting and gently, subtly heartbreaking performance.
What could, and should, be called restrained is Bob Nelson's beautiful script, a marvel of understatement that gives each character moments of triumph without veering into ugly sentimentality. Nebraska, despite all its sighing about time and family and home, is ultimately an upbeat film, but in a way that feels entirely true, and human. My favorite scene, which is perhaps also the saddest, involves the family touring Woody's childhood home, a now-abandoned farmhouse littered with dust and scrap wood and teeming with ghosts. Though it could easily have been a scene done in monochrome bleakness, Nelson manages to wring a small note of sweetness out of this dilapidated old house and the sad stories that have settled into its bones. Though they are mostly gone now, some people lived here once. And though it's sad that all that living was so long ago, it's nice that it happened at all, isn't it? Nebraska nods a quick and wistful yes and then, like we all gotta do, ambles on as best as it can.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.