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The Magic Scene: Nebraska

July 12, 2022  |  630 words  |  Drama, Movies

It sort of goes without saying every good movie is made up of a series of enjoyable, engaging scenes.  But the really good movies, the ones that stick with you, have what I would call a magic scene.  Or maybe even more than one.  

Often the magic will hit you right away, as its unfolding.  But sometimes it’s only on the second or third viewing that the jewel – a bit of dialogue, a camera angle, a facial expression – jumps out at you.

I was watching Nebraska again today, mainly because there was nothing else available that interested me.  It’s a low-key family drama/road trip movie that first came out in 2013.  And let me warn you – it starts off slowly.   The actor Bruce Dern is very believable as grouchy old coot Woody Grant who is starting to lose his marbles.  The actress Jane Squibb is also very convincing as his equally grouchy wife, Kate.  These early scenes are not that much fun to watch.  I came pretty close to giving up and turning it off.

But then we start to learn a little of the main character’s back story.  And his long-suffering wife is also given some context.  And before you know it, this quiet little black-and-white film had me at full attention.  The screenwriter manages to put a good bit of nuance into this simple story of a nondescript old married couple.  And the director does a good job of bringing all that nuance to life.

There is plenty of good dialogue along the way, but for me the proverbial magic scene happened in the second half of the movie.  The plot involves Woody’s son, David, driving his father from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a bogus magazine sweepstakes prize Woody is convinced he won.

They make a pit stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, to spend a few days with relatives, bumping into a few of Woody’s old friends, and visiting the now-deserted family homestead.  Kate takes the bus down from Billings to join them.  At one point David ventures into town on his own and wanders into the storefront that houses the town’s newspaper.  It’s run by a widow we learn was one of Woody’s long-ago high school girlfriends.

She tells David a key fact about his father’s past he was previously unaware of.  This prompts her to slowly pull out an oversized book filled with old clippings.  That’s the magic scene.  And it kind of snuck up on me.  This small wisp of a woman as the quite keeper of everyone’s life story.  The way the camera follows her from behind as she pulls the book off a shelf and moves to a counter to open it up, is a beautiful thing to behold.

By now the movie has hit its stride and I’m on the edge of my seat.  When some greedy relatives are telling David how they lent his father money years ago, and they now want to be repaid out of his phantom lottery winnings, Kate steps in.  “I kept records,” she barks at the in-laws.  Turns out Woody was a soft touch who gave away far too much free gasoline and auto repair work at the service station he once owned in Hawthorne.  

In one short burst of a speech Kate defends her husband and his easily-exploited good nature, while telling the in-laws to go pound sand.  Oh, how I loved this woman in that moment.

And speaking of love, by the end of the movie the viewer has fallen completely in love with this cantankerous old pair.  And it’s obvious that David, their gown son, has come to a much deeper appreciation of both his parents.  What a fine little film this is.  Hats off to all involved.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

July 12, 2022

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