Time is a peculiar yet universally felt concept whose effects can be seen in its numerous consequences either through the obvious traits of aging or the far more subtle and subjectively felt intangibles such as regret. In the heart of the Midwest there are depressingly poetic examples of this thoroughly felt concept of time how the vast stretches of what appears to be infinite plains of nothing are filled with monuments of ruin either in the ghost town cities or the deserted farmland all of which are consequences of economic hardship and familial anchors. This is the melancholic setting of Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska, a sad yet endearing road trip film that becomes a sort of modern Don Quixote influenced story where a regret filled, dementia gaining father resembling the infamous dreamer Quixote resiliently chases the remnants of a thin dream accompanied by his affably neutered son serving as the loyal Sancho Panza. Nebraska clearly resembles previous films that have captured the distinct American spirit and eccentric characters of the parched Midwest, including Peter Bogdonovich's The Last Picture Show and David Lynch's oddly accessible The Straight Story, but remains uniquely an Alexander Payne film containing his penchant for mixing whimsically dry humor with poignant humanity. At the center of Payne's film is an astonishingly subtle performance from experienced acting veteran Bruce Dern whose stern blankness and aging dementia makes for an intriguing parallel to the derelict environments throughout the Midwest setting which is captured brilliantly through cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's poetic black & white imagery. This whimsical yet mournful ode to Midwestern life, values, and legacy is aided through the lost art of subtle acting and the usually non-existent talent for subtle direction allowing the intended humor to land directly and the emotional heart to enter gracefully. While Nebraska might be an engaging, humorous, and sweet amalgamation of Payne's previous works where the road trip element of Sideways meets the intimate family dynamic of The Descendants it's definitely a transition film for the quirky storyteller as it embraces a far more poetic and humanist side to the director's incredibly heartfelt style of filmmaking. It's difficult to say where exactly Nebraska will fall in Payne's established film canon but as it stands on its own it's a deeply lyrical reflection on the loss of time and a credible affirmation on the long enduring existence of hope.
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