As director Alexander Payne sees it, his latest film “Nebraska” is about a dying man whose son takes him into Hades to meet all the specters of the past.
Oh, and it’s a comedy, despite that dire synopsis — one that revels in lunkhead cousins who embody how awful extended family can be and in an elderly wife who lifts her skirt over a former paramour’s gravestone to show him what he missed.
That push and pull between pathos and hilarity is familiar to fans of Payne’s previous films like wine-country sojourn “Sideways” and Hawaiian-family dissection “The Descendants” — both of which won him best writing Oscars.
“It is hard for me to put a label on what I do. It’s dramatic and it’s funny,” Payne said ahead of the film’s opening. “Yes, I seek to criticize and I seek to praise.”
Family, the elderly, small town life in Payne’s home state of Nebraska and Midwestern values all run through Payne’s lens, skewered and exalted in equal measure.
While the film conjures up Payne’s previous work, “Nebraska” also explores new territory. For one, Payne shot the film in black and white, a rarity in modern-day cinema but a good vehicle for the stark Nebraska landscapes and weathered faces.
And then he cast Bruce Dern, best known for villainous supporting characters, in a complex lead role that earned the 77-year-old the best actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Dern is Woody, an alcoholic father verging on senility who believes he has won $1 million in a “mega sweepstakes” if only he can collect the prize in his home state of Nebraska, 750 miles away. He is taking stock of an unfulfilled life, but this prize could be a late grab for greatness.
Dern met Payne through his daughter and fellow actor Laura Dern and he credits the 52-year-old director for giving him “an enormous amount of freedom” to play Woody. “When he casts you, you know you feel you are the character,” said Dern. “You don’t need to put on things.”
Payne, known in Hollywood as an “actor’s director,” says 90 percent of his directing is in the casting and his role on set is to foment creativity, not to create himself.
Payne said he sits right next to the lens of the camera and focuses only on the actors. “I am asking myself ‘Do I believe it?’ And I keep shooting until I believe it,” he said.
Opening Friday in area theaters. Rated R for some language. 110 minutes.