How do you make a movie about depressing people that is not, in itself, depressing? That is the challenge that writer-director Alexander Payne sets for himself: He is the Houdini of depression, shackling himself in a narrative straitjacket of hopeless despair and then somehow magically getting himself and his audience out of it.
In his movies—Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and The Descendants (2011)—Payne focuses his gaze on the disappointed, the deluded, the lost, and the betrayed. These are movies about liars, thieves, drug addicts, fools, and fanatics, and they all behave pretty badly. And yet, in the end, Payne’s sensibility is essentially comedic. These movies (all except The Descendants, which I thought was awful) succeed in pulling off the daring feat of being both compassionate and merciless towards their characters.
Nebraska, Payne’s latest film, is nominally his bleakest. Shot in a grim black and white, it’s the story of a taciturn old drunk named Woody (an unforgettable Bruce Dern) who believes the direct-mail letter he receives telling him he’s won a million dollars. His sad-sack son David (Will Forte), who sells stereo equipment incompetently and can’t hold onto a girlfriend, decides to drive him to collect the prize even though he knows it’s a scam.
The movie it most resembles photographically is The Last Picture Show (1971), Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant black-and-white rendering of Larry McMurtry’s novel about Texas teenagers in a dead-end town in the 1950s where the only source of entertainment, the local movie theater, is about to shut down. But while The Last Picture Show is a tragedy of sorts, Nebraska is a very, very, very dry comedy. Payne is entirely unsentimental about the Nebraskans who populate this movie and a few of his other films. They are often small-minded, provincial, and petty, and at times he seems as dismissive of their lives as Sinclair Lewis was of the lives of Babbitt and the other residents of Zenith. But unlike Lewis, who left his Minnesota hometown and then made fun of it for the rest of his life, Payne still lives part of the year in his native Omaha—and the movies also show that he likes his fellow Cornhuskers on account of their doggedness, their plainness, the way they get up and go about their business.
Woody and David take a road trip from Billings, the Montana town where they live, through Wyoming, past Mount Rushmore, and then finally into their home state of Nebraska, where the direct-mail marketing firm is located. We are in Depopulated America, where you can go hundreds of miles without seeing anyone—where even in the cities there’s no traffic, and where the small farming towns froze in place 40 years ago and then began to decay.
Woody is a reflection of the landscape. Unyielding and distant, profoundly stubborn and almost entirely withdrawn, he is a puzzle to his son and a source of raging and abiding disappointment to his wife Kate (the delightful June Squibb). The miracle of Dern’s performance and Bob Nelson’s screenplay is that they sprinkle tiny bits of character detail throughout that slowly turn Woody from the movie’s object to its subject. He’s a difficult and foolish man, but we find out that he possesses both qualities for good reason—and that he is very far from being as emotionally absent as he appears.
Eventually, father and son end up in Woody’s hometown, where there is a family reunion of sorts. But the family believes that Woody is going to get the million dollars, as do the rest of the folks in town. They are all full of congratulations that mask a lifetime of wants and needs and not-so-hidden resentments. Nobody in Nebraska has very much, and the possibility of getting just a little more turns them all a bit crazy.
As in About Schmidt, Payne’s remarkable portrait of a man in his 60s who comes to see that his entire life has been a failure, the characters in Nebraska find a glimmer of hope in a few simple acts of kindness. Payne renders that glimmer as dryly as he renders the humor. Nebraska is a movie about depression, but it ends up being both heartbreaking and subtly revivifying.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.