Having contrasted vibrant Hawaiian hues with bitter emotional truths in The Descendants, Alexander Payne pulls off the equal-but-opposite trick in this unassuming road movie. Filmed in monochrome and scripted with a sparseness that borders on severity, Nebraska's austere surface belies the warmth and sweetness at its core.
Bruce Dern plays Woody, a crotchety ageing alcoholic with the early signs of dementia, in a performance that won the 'Best Actor' gong at this year's Cannes Film Festival. When he receives a letter telling him that he's won a million dollars, he becomes single-minded in his determination to go to Nebraska and collect his winnings.
After failing to convince his father that this is plainly a scam, his adult son David (Will Forte, proving the maxim that career comedians can segue into drama with ease) agrees to be his chauffeur for the 800-mile trip, eager for the bonding opportunity and the change of scenery.
What initially promises to be a downbeat two-hander about a father and son struggling for connection is complicated by the addition of Woody's equally cantankerous wife (June Squibb) and a lengthy pit stop in his hometown, where an assortment of friends and relatives are waiting all-too-eagerly to congratulate him on his supposed earnings, with hands outstretched. As with The Descendants' battle over ancestral land, there's a shrewdly drawn sense here of how flimsy a thing family loyalty can be when people get dollar signs in their eyes.
Bob Nelson's screenplay is more about the gaps between speech than speech, and Dern's performance is the same - he does wonders during a largely silent sequence in which the trio visit Woody's childhood home. Meanwhile David is the latest in a line of quietly disillusioned Payne protagonists, but there's none of the caustic rage or overtly depressive quality we've come to expect, and, one brief scene with an ex aside, we get little of his personal life.
There's something intensely moving about watching this doomed journey play out against the barren, curiously evocative landscape of roadside middle America. Nebraska builds to a stirring third act that's comprised so entirely of small, loaded moments that you don't immediately register its emotional impact. It's a beguiling and intimate change of pace for Payne.