Nebraska ★★★½

"It's just a bunch of old wood and some weeds."

Alexander Payne has proven again and again that he is a master of depicting how awful people can be... to the point that I can't stomach most of his movies. At some point the relentlessness of his characters' awfulness raises more questions about the storyteller than it does about human nature. Why is he so inclined, movie after movie, to wallow in ugliness? Compared to Payne's America, the Coen Brothers' America feels like the stuff of Norman Rockwell. On rare occasions — especially in Sideways — a scene will come along that tells us he's capable of capturing moments of grace and compassion. But a few waves of warmth and feeling aren't enough to kill the overbearing chill of condescension and contempt.

For the first hour, Nebraska feels like just another version of the same joyless world according to Alexander Payne. Like About Schmidt, it's about a miserable S.O.B. who is almost ruined by something that comes through Ye Olde U.S. Mail. For Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), the mail became an attempt to connect meaningfully with another human being. For Woody (Bruce Dern), a sweepstakes scam becomes a reason to hope that he might find a salve for his shame, his regrets, and his long-dimmed dreams. Schmidt was too dumb to realize he was making much, much more of a charity donation letter than he should. And Woody's trek to claim his bogus prize money becomes sort of the opposite of David Lynch's The Straight Story, a snail's pace trek across America that reveals ugliness instead of dignity, emptiness instead of beauty.

But in the last act, it's as if a new day is dawning... not in Nebraska, but in Payne's heart. Perhaps he planned to play a long game here, to let bleakness dominate so that a few sparks of grace would shine out brightly at the end. Or maybe he got tired of living under his own self-generated stormcloud. There are some marvelous and subtle moments as Woody's son David, having come to see the ugliest of truths about his father, is moved to compassion rather than contempt. I half-expected the black-and-white to morph into a full-color finale.

The film concludes with the most beautifully understated and meaningful shot I've seen in a Payne movie, one that rivals my other favorite last shot of 2013 (Short Term 12). It makes the whole trip worthwhile. And I am now, for the first, time, very hopeful about his future as a filmmaker.

Still, that first hour really wallows in sneering stereotypes. Sure, there really are people that are as immature, simple-minded, brutish, and greedy as the small-town hicks in Payne's vision of the Midwest. But you can still sense an undercurrent of contempt in these characterizations, and the ending, as strong as it is, isn't quite strong enough to wash that bitterness away.

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