Nebraska director Alexander Payne with stars Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Cannes Thursday. Photo by Brian Brooks

Alexander Payne hits the road once again with his latest film, Nebraska. Nearly a decade after Sideways, a feature that remains an enduring apex in his career, two men hit the road again in his latest effort, but that is about where the comparison ends. The Cannes competition film starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte is supremely opposite the lush tones and landscape of Sideways, instead opting for an austere palate of black and white and a widely contrasting experience. 

In Payne’s American Gothic tale, Dern and Forte play father and son Woody and David, who have not had the most compatible relationship. Woody receives a letter from a Lincoln publishing house that says he has won $1 million. Like most of the people in the town he has known for years, he has lead a borderline ascetic life. His son tells him the letter is fake and his in-your-face wife tells him he’s a flat-out fool. Without a means to transport himself to Lincoln, Woody begins to walk, only to be stopped roadside by his son. He continues again and again until David relents and says he’ll drive him to Nebraska’s capital city.

“[Black and white] just seemed like the right thing to do with this film,” Payne said in Cannes Thursday. “I’ve always wanted to do a black and white film. Black and white left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic reasons. I felt a medium as austere as the lives depicted here was appropriate.”

Now well into the festival’s second half, Nebraska marks a clear contrast to the ostentatious consumption of wealth as typified by Cannes’ Opening Night film The Great Gatsby or Un Certain Regard opener The Bling Ring. The muted tones, drab clothing, and subtle signs of economic depravity, in fact, contrast to Cannes itself, which easily ranks in the upper echelon of the world’s most overt displays of caste, bling and cha-ching.

Before long, word spreads among friends and family that Woody has come into some quick cash and he’s suddenly the most popular guy in town, but naturally, people have their hands out. David repeatedly tells them that his father is wrong about the sweepstakes, but they only pay half-mind at best, hoping that some of the gravy-train will head their way too.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Nebraska

“When I saw the material, I knew I had to go after the role however I could,” said Dern, who repeatedly lavished high praise on Payne Thursday, even to the point of almost looking taken aback. “I’ve worked for some really wonderful director [including] Kazan, Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola. Payne is about risk-taking, but you have to have a guide.” Continuing, the 76 year old actor said of Payne, “I didn’t have a relationship with my father, but at the end of this movie, I found my father and that’s Alexander.”

Though nearly 10 years after Sideways, Nebraska has been on Payne’s radar since that film debuted to critical and box office success. A black and white feature about the unfulfilled dreams of a man in his sunset years, set against the melancholy of a stark landscape, may have bigger marketing challenges than one about two middle aged men en route to the sunny wine country of California’s Central Coast. And Payne admitted that it took some discussion with distributor Paramount before they ok’d the project, but the film’s characters and underlying affection may resonate through word-of-mouth.

“By the time I was finished making Sideways, I was sick of shooting in cars and I wanted some time in between, and I’m glad I did,” said Payne who is originally from Omaha. “Sideways was more lush and romantic and this is clearly more austere.”

Continuing he added, “One thing I like about this story is that the son wants to give his aging father some dignity. My parents are also on their home stretch and I hope that for them.”

For more coverage of the 66th Cannes Film Festival, click here.