NEBRASKA

If movies were poker hands, Real would initially seem set for a royal flush. It’s got an ace premise, and its director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is the king of J-horror cinema—a master of unsettling mise-en-scène who wields the edge of the frame like a whispered threat. Manga artist Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) and her childhood friend-turned-lover Koichi (Takeru Sato) live together in a strangely infantile, asexual version of domestic coupledom. In the wake of a suicide attempt that leaves Atsumi comatose, Koichi is given the opportunity to delve inside her dreams with the help of some Inception-esque medical technology. Koichi has a hard time reaching Atsumi in the depths of her semi-consciousness: she remains fixed in place at her desk in a netherworld replica of their apartment, scribbling away at a grotesque manga. Soon, Koichi finds not only that he’s unable to tear Atsumi away from her obsessive labor, but also that the phantoms of her work are starting to invade his waking reality. For this first act, Real is essentially a horror movie, and one with a lot of potential. Kurosawa is an expert at turning placid surfaces into nightmares, and his brand of horror packs an emotional punch that seems fitting for the material. What could be scarier, in an existential sense, than the inside of your loved one’s head?

Yet as the movie unfurls, Real turns into a bum hand, thoroughly, almost systematically squandering its early promise. As soon as Koichi and Atsumi step out of the dream-apartment into the wide-open spaces of her subconscious, Real ceases to be a horror movie at all, turning to twisty, turgid psychodrama in which characters are treated as Rubik’s Cubes whose solutions are locked away in tidy boxes of childhood trauma. By the time a giant plesiosaur drops into the film’s climax, all of Real’s tension has dissipated, as if Kurosawa knows he should’ve folded by now but keeps trying to bluff his way into coherence.

Nebraska, on the other hand, demonstrates where a talented and idiosyncratic filmmaker can go from an unpromising beginning. For its first twenty minutes or so, Alexander Payne’s film seems almost unbearable, a dead-in-the-water, sub-sitcom revue of Midwestern minstrelsy. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging alcoholic whose zombielike behavior suggests an undiagnosed spot on the Autism spectrum, believes he has won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and his son Dave (Will Forte) both recognize the promised riches as an obvious fraud, but Dave consents to drive his father to Lincoln, Nebraska when the full extent of the old man’s stubbornness becomes clear. These opening passages – drenched in the sad-sack tones of Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography – are lifeless, stilted, and rather mean-spirited, treating the emptiness of these characters’ lives as a target for easy white-trash yuks. But when Woody and Dave are waylaid for the weekend and make a detour to the house of Woody’s brother and his family, the film begins to display more sophisticated shades of nuance. Not only does Nebraska accumulate empathy for its characters as it develops, its jokes also become more pointed and successful. A karaoke-restaurant scene brings down the house, and a brief conversation about the jail sentence of one of Woody’s cousins echoes the more satirical barbs of Payne’s early films. As the weekend turns into a full-fledged family reunion, dredging up questions about how Woody came to be such a shell of a man, Payne manages to find the sweet spot between vicious humor and melancholy tenderness that he’s been searching for since About Schmidt. The second half of the film still has its flaws – the movie could use a much stronger anchor than Forte, and Payne retains an unfortunate tendency to turn his elderly female characters into grotesque punchlines – but the fact that it manages to transcend its initial defeatism to arrive at a place of genuine warmth is a real triumph.

The 51st New York Film Festival ran from September 27 to October 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.