An aging, booze-addled father (Bruce Dern) makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son (Will Forte) in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
Woody Grant, magnificently played by Bruce Dern, is the central character in Nebraska. If he were asked to weigh in on the film and it was the best thing he'd ever seen in his life, his entire review would probably consist of: "Good movie."
Pitch and tone are hard to achieve let alone sustain, but Payne does so to perfection.
Woody is terse, succinct, taciturn and a man of few words. He's also a cranky alcoholic. He lives in Billings, Montana. Absolutely convinced that a marketing flyer he received in the mail means it when it says he's the lucky recipient of one million dollars, he is dead-set on going to the company's headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. To do that, he'll have to cross Wyoming and South Dakota.
But Nebraska isn't a lesson in American geography so much as it is a sneaky exploration of how best to map a human heart or two.
When we first see him, Woody is walking along the side of a Montana road that is obviously not designed for pedestrians. A sign says he has reached the Billings City Limits. He's determined to make the trip to Nebraska on foot for a reason I'll get to in a minute.
Now, who in his right mind would actually believe that something that arrived in the mail designed to lure you into buying magazine subscriptions really meant that you'd already won a $1 million sweepstakes jackpot?
In America for many decades, Ed McMahon (trusty sidekick to the wildly popular late night TV talkshow host Johnny Carson) was the spokesman for an outfit called Publisher's Clearing House. They offered then, as now, a vast array of reputable magazines. And they included a photo in each mailing of a regular-looking person with a regular-sounding name holding up a giant facsimilie of the generous check he or she had just won in the famous Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes.
The late American film critic Roger Ebert in his (terrific!) memoir Life Itself writes of an uncle named Bill, "a retired high school agriculture teacher." Uncle Bill and his wife Mary moved to a retirement home in Roger's hometown in Illinois "where both remained alert until the end, although Bill in his 80s began counting on a visit from Ed McMahon with a $1 million check from Publishers Clearing House, and after his death we had to cancel his subscription to Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy."
Although $1 million dollars doesn't buy as much as it used to, it does make one a titular millionaire. So, we have Woody's motivation.
The thing is, he's not permitted to drive because he no longer qualifies for a driver's licence because he drinks too much. His beleagured younger son, David (Will Forte), agrees to do the driving.
Father and son aren't particularly close at the outset. By bittersweet increments, they'll get to know each other better.
And boy will we get to know a gallery of softspoken and outspoken characters who act like somebody inserted new batteries in them once they hear that Woody's a millionaire.
Dern won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal. The entire cast does excellent work, with Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) so outspoken you wish that you, too, could say exactly what you think in all situations.
Angela McEwan is heartbreakingly wonderful as a woman who might have married Woody had things turned out differently.
Faces look lived-in and the film is, fittingly, in black and white. Gorgeous, evocative, shimmering and contrasty widescreen black & white.
The landscape is one of wide open spaces and borderline desolation. Many a passage looks like a perfectly-framed old photograph you just can't stop scrutinizing.
"Beautiful scenery" usually refers to azure vistas or noble monuments but here it applies to fields dotted with cows or bales of hay.
The journey takes them past Mt. Rushmore. Woody says the giant quartet of American presidents looks "unfinished, as if somebody got bored." George Washington, he observes, "is the only one with any clothes" and "Lincoln doesn't even have an ear."
If he did then he'd hear Woody's curt, impatient pronouncements.
There's no abstract commentary or cultural speculation, just pragmatic statements. When they reach Nebraska, even the cemetery is sparsely populated.
This is the first time Alexander Payne has directed a script he did not write. But as a native of Nebraska -- and as a keen purveyor of slowburn humour -- he makes the material his own. Pitch and tone are hard to achieve let alone sustain, but Payne does so to perfection, offering up an austere, plain, direct visual style. When he brought Nebraska to Cannes, he had finished it just days prior.
Payne said, "I like actors who can be ornery and heartbreaking at the same time."
He explained that even decades ago Peter Bogdanovich had trouble making his movies in black & white, not because of US distributors but because of deals studios have with TV channels all over the world who demand colour. Apparently that's still the case.
Dern was as talkative at the press conference as Woody was tight-lipped. "I've worked with 6 geniuses," said Dern. Hitchcock was on his list and so was Payne.
Dern allowed as how Jack Nicholson "is probably the best partner I've ever had in a movie, but Will is right on his shoulder."
Payne said, "The son wishes to give his aging father some dignity. My own parents are in the home stretch. I like when sons and daughters do something to restore dignity."
And then Dern said this: "I've done a lot of movies. But I haven't, until today, made a film."
If you see only one black and white film disguised as a road movie this year or next, make it Nebraska.
Sunday 5 September, 9:25pm on SBS World Movies / now streaming at SBS On Demand
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Will Forte, Rance Howard, June Squibb