What could be more American than a movie about fathers and sons? Maybe a road trip movie. Well, buy your tickets now, patriots, because Nebraska happens to be both. Steeped in the bleak imagery of middle America, it’s both a love letter to the hard-working American everyperson and a gentle but honest look at what makes the American family tick.
Now, I’m proudly Canadian, but I’m still a sucker for these kind of Midwest-y, quiet-spoken little movies. (Maybe it’s the comfort of hearing accents that sound surprisingly similar to some of Canada’s regional accents. Who knows?) There’s something so inherently steady and a little bit sad about movies that take place in the no man’s land of the U.S., and Alexander Payne taps into that extremely successfully with Nebraska. The film tracks a father and son’s slow but determined journey from Montana to Nebraska and chronicles their reluctant tangles with various family members along the way. It’s not exactly high on energy, but I’ll be darned if it isn’t a lot of fun to watch unfold anyways.
As a Saturday Night Live devotee, I’m very familiar with Will Forte. I’ve spent countless hours watching him throw himself into playing sex offenders, overenthusiastic high school coaches, one half of a Bon Jovi opposite band, and, yes, MacGruber. Never would I have thought I’d be seeing such a dramatic, wonderfully restrained performance from him – or, at least not so soon in his budding movie career. But he has such a lovely, sad charm about him here, essentially playing the straight man in a tragicomedy of sorts. He and Dern, who is so fantastic and gruff, have an endlessly watchable chemistry.
This is maybe Payne’s most artful project yet, and he creates a lot of evocative imagery without being too heavy-handed about it. The choice to shoot in black and white really works here, nicely complimenting the creaky, slightly rundown vibe of the movie itself. The film’s characters actively rebel against showboating or drawing a lot of attention to oneself, and the film is very true to its subject matter in that respect. Even the few moments of “drama” and tension are still dictated by manners and the act of keeping up appearances, which is kind of wonderful.
To that end, Payne finds a nice balance between comedy and drama. It never feels like he’s making fun of his subjects, and he uses humour sparingly enough that it’s all the funnier when he does decide to pepper in a joke here and there. It may be his least daring film yet, but it also feels like his most assured and honest.