Bruce Dern is Woody Grant in NEBRASKA, from Paramount Vantage.

DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
CAST: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Running Time: 125 minutes

This is an intriguing film from many points of view. Not wanting to be prescriptive, yet talking about this latest film, director Alexander Payne (Descendants, Sideways) said that (for him) it dealt with death. It was a man walking over a hill, waving goodbye, and a son’s last attempt to get to know his unknowable father.

And it is this unknowable part that is deeply alienating as you watch this incredibly sad life unfold, and perhaps unravel, but he determinedly soldiers on.

Dern plays the part of a lifetime as Woody who has received a bogus reward of a million-dollar win. He’s determined to collect his prize even if it’s the last thing he does.

His family, wife (Squibb) and two sons are doing their best in their particular way to protect him, but he has only one thing in mind.

His sweetly tempered son agrees to take him to collect the prize.

He sees the desperation and knows that there might not be that much more he gets to do for his dad.

Though when you look at the relationship, it’s difficult to see why he decides to help. His father, who might also be showing signs of dementia, isn’t the most likeable character, even if he is fascinating to watch. You don’t really want to engage him – or he anyone else.

And once you meet the extended family, the two normal sons are a real puzzle. That’s the secret worth telling. How did they make it out of such a dysfunctional heritage?

Underneath it all there’s a melancholy that runs deep which reverberates in the landscape which Payne has shot in black and white. It’s a work of art, the pictures on the screen, and nothing that distracts from the pain of the people swilling around.

Some are more battered than others as individuals are affected differently by the way life treats them. Most of the time, a little bit of humanity is lost every day as people start to turn to themselves as the only hope. Eventually it means they can’t afford to look out for anybody else. It’s a sad state of affairs that seems to resonate strongly in Woody’s home town, where most of his family still live.

It’s a film of performances led by Dern but richly coloured by the rest of his family and the hangers on.

Nebraska and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis have many similarities. They both swivel around existential crises of some sort, one dealing with age and the other with the meaning of life, and each has a road trip at its centre, but that’s where the similarities end.

While the performances in both are extraordinary and worth watching, the Coens’ do a dance so elegantly it immediately draws you into this artist’s dilemma. With Nebraska, the director has had to work much harder, and it shows. It appears much more choreographed and constructed, which detracts from the artistry he is chasing.

In many ways it’s also a much harder movie to watch because of the personalities of the main protagonists. Woody might evoke sympathy because of his life’s struggles, but his personality and cold shoulder to even the people who care doesn’t make him endearing. In fact, he’s quite tough to bear, which makes his son (sensitively played by Forte) almost impossible to grasp.

If you liked Inside Llewyn Davis or The Straight Story, you might like this one.