There’s homage, and then there’s the new poster for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which couldn’t be more evocative of David Lynch’s Eraserhead if it featured a lizard-baby’s scissor-stabbed organs. It’s supremely interesting that the folks behind Nebraska turned to the world of Lynch for inspiration, since few would think to connect the surrealist auteur to Payne’s deadpan Americana. But maybe there is something here, beyond these one-sheets’ high-contrast black-and-white, and beyond the shocks of hair that respectively define Jack Nance and Bruce Dern’s characters, that link the filmmakers’ works. Though more darkly and elliptically inclined, Lynch is as much a surveyor of Anytown, USA as Payne will ever be, and the latter has offered his share of bluntly ironic, borderline-Lynchian character quirks. What’s most interesting here is the implication that Nebraska, like Eraserhead, is, on some level, a nightmare.
Shot in black and white and structured as a road trip, Payne’s latest stars Dern, a Best Actor winner at Cannes, as Woody Grant, a Montana resident who’s informed via mail that he’s won a million bucks, but must trek to Nebraska to claim it. With a possibly dementia-tinged resolve, Woody enlists son David (Will Forte) to accompany him, never fully convincing his kid that the prize is even legit. Clearly, there are elements of delusion at play here, and anyone who caught the new Nebraska trailer saw that Woody’s rumored winnings stir up customary small-town whispers, not to mention a handful of toughs to whom the apparent antihero owes money. Is Nebraska’s marketing nod to Eraserhead just a cheeky stunt with the hopes of turning heads, or is it truly suggesting that there’s a drier-than-usual undercurrent to Payne’s objective, with darker and headier layers than the initial reviews are letting on?
If taken separately from its Eraserhead likenesses, the poster for Nebraska, with its all-but-silhouetted main character, his empty-looking headspace, and his windswept hairs that are sparse enough that those with proper patience might count them, is brimming with with visual loss. Just like the cinematography of the movie proper, the absence of color speaks for itself in terms of conveying the waning vibrancy that comes with age. Woody’s cranial blankness (save for the text) implies a loss of memory, loss of clarity, loss of judgment, and, perhaps, loss of sanity. And that hair, blown back like dying grass on a sand dune, practically signifies the winds of time and change. But let’s just assume there is a greater connection here to Lynchian horror. Like the Coen Brothers, Payne is no stranger to the humdrum, quotidian, inescapably human things (like aging) that can seem terrifying when stared blankly in the face. Bleak but for its streaks of humor and eventual semi-uplift, About Schmidt is a scary-ass piece of work, enough to make anyone dread what comes after retirement. It may not have the inexplicable, REM-sleep creepshow factors Lynch favors, but it still hauntingly breaks the skin by plumbing the nicety-buried heart of the U.S. of A.
And who knows? Maybe the poster is just some kooky, roundabout way of acknowledging that Dern’s daughter, Laura, has played muse to Payne and Lynch. Now we’re getting somewhere…