A good road movie is metaphorically transporting. Nebraska gets you into the Subaru and hauls you on an unforgettable journey across three mid-west states.

Director Alexander Payne didn’t immediately follow his hilarious Napa Valley pre-wedding road-trip outing of Sideways (2009) with this, but you can see how his intervening film, The Descendants, fits in. It, too, was a saga dissecting what it means to be family, with George Clooney arranging his Hawaiian land deal.

In Nebraska (screened entirely in black and white), the stage is more pared back; hollowed out like the scenery, which is not lush verdant growth, but the wide dry wheatbelt of middle America.

The opening scene shows an old gent shuffling on relentlessly through the desolate outskirts of a city. A kindly cop brings him in, but it won’t be the first or last time Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) takes off, headed for Lincoln, Nebraska, where he’s sure a million-dollar win awaits him.

Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) tells their sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), in no uncertain terms, that she’s had enough. But she doesn’t expect young Davy to up and drive the irascible old coot to Nebraska. Everyone knows letters in the mail about sweepstake windfalls are scams, don’t they?

This is a show full of character study, especially in the unscheduled stop in Woody’s old hometown. At Aunt Martha’s there’s a family reunion with all the silent-type Grant men and wily, rough-boy cousins – like Bart and Cole, who angle for a share of Woody’s “riches”. Even former work colleague Ed Pegrum (Stacy Keach), with his old-man handsome face and mellifluous voice, wants in.

As much as this is the story of a son connecting with his father, it is one where landscape is also a character: an elegiac, cinematographic photo essay of the mid-west, where each town sports a billboard missing a vital letter.

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It’s no surprise Nebraska is up for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor in a leading role, best actress in a supporting role, direction and screenplay (Bob Nelson). The soundtrack deserves special note – from the haunting opening Tijuana music by Mark Orton from band Tin Hat right through.

“You’re just like your father – stubborn as a mule!” says Kate to her son, and you’ll want to catch what else she has to say in this wonderful picture.

More InDaily film reviews:

All is Lost
Endless Love
Dallas Buyers Club
Winter’s Tale
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Last Vegas
Grudge Match
12 Years a Slave

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