Spaces figure prominently in Alexander Payne's latest movie, Nebraska. Those spaces are the literal kind and the figurative ones that exist between individuals and their memories, places and one another. As he did in About Schmidt, Payne lingers on the lonesome buildings and landmarks that are part of the Midwestern scenery his characters pass through, to the point that what stands out in relief is their banality. Payne doesn't do this to rub our faces in meaninglessness — the situations are too funny, too human. Payne relies on juxtaposition of conceits and reality to elicit a warm empathy that is the purpose behind his cold, austere settings. He underscores shared sadness in how the objects, particularly dreary cityscapes, separate us as they add a patina of gloom to our daily lives.
At a glance, it seems like these ramshackle, barren towns are dying if not already dead. Payne finds secluded areas and wide-open spaces that suggest desolation and abandonment rather than the frontiers of discovery they must have been to pioneers. And when his main characters encounter these spaces, they can feel the distance between their memories and what those places have become. With Nebraska, he focuses on the facial expressions of an aged character who realizes that the places he'd hoped to revisit are both present and gone, irreconcilable in the mind.
This meditation on memory and loss takes the form of a father-son road trip. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes. Despite assurances from his son David (Will Forte) that the award notice is a scam, Woody is determined to go to the sweepstakes office in person to collect his winnings (not trusting the mail with his money). David, realizing how much it means to his dad, decides to drive him, and so they hit the road from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Along the way, they stop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, where Nebraska's themes take root.
Dern's elderly Woody ambles along, his body contorted and ravaged by time and perhaps war injuries. His mind is rarely present in the moment, and he has to be spoken to repeatedly before responding. David, whose relationship with his dad is complicated and filtered through a history of alcohol abuse, expresses a mixture of sadness and controlled exasperation. Through Woody and David, Payne shows how difficult aging can be.
In Hawthorne, Payne trains an unsentimental eye on people, places and small talk. More than once, he fixes his camera before the faces of family members sitting expressionless as they watch television. Occasionally the silence is broken by a mundane exchange of question and answer. With his gentle jabs at human nature, Payne is reaching for easy humor so he can express something deeper. It's these moments of separateness that underscore the value of fleeting togetherness. In Nebraska's poignant, extended final scene, father and son make that wordless connection.