"Country" should probably have been called "Woman" since it puts Jessica Lange in the role of all-time champion earth sister. Lange and Sam Shepard, so gaunt it hurts, play Midwestern farmers Jewell and Gil Ivy, who face foreclosure and the loss of their land in the dead-earnest social melodrama that opens today at area theaters. Unfortunately, what one might expect to be a film about people banding together turns out to be a film about Lange banding together.
Indeed, William D. Wittliff, who wrote the screenplay, throws a tornado at her in the first reel just to give her something to do. Tornados are no match for this kid, an agrarian Iowan who in the course of the film sails a sea of troubles and by opposing intimidates them. At one point she stands up to a Mack truck.
There's no particular reason why the new breed of woman-hero shouldn't be drawn in terms as exaggerated as heroic men have been for years on the screen. But for Wittliff and Lange, also the coproducers, it isn't enough that Jewell Ivy is strong. Everybody else has to be weak. As the husband, Shepard skulks and lurks about for the first half of the film and then when the going gets tough, he gets going -- right out the door. He falls blubberingly to pieces and then vanishes. Jessica presses on.
Lange gives attractive stamina and grit to Jewell Ivy, but as an actress she is better equipped for communicating vulnerability and victimization on the screen. It has something to do with the way her half-moon face photographs as some fragile, wounded visage. Her most human moment is one of submission, when she presses her forehead against the door of her childrens' bedroom and sobs.
Anyone would be entitled to sob. Land that has been in Jewell's family for 100 years is about to be confiscated by an Uncle Sam with fangs, the Farmers Home Administration. The Ivys are meant to symbolize those farmers whose way of life is threatened by cruelly changing times. Unquestionably the movie's heart is in the right place, but somebody forgot that even the most decent impulses require some form of dramatization when plastered onto a movie screen. "Country" is arch and skeletal, and it keeps trumping up excuses for Lange to play the saint -- a Joan of Arkansas, as it were, even though that's a bit to the South.
After the tornado, and Jewell has rescued her son from death by suffocation, the story of encroachments by the dread feds slowly unfolds. Thirty-year notes on the Ivy farm are capriciously called due, and the family must come up with $96,000 or lose the place. At a bank where he once got loans because they liked his face (it sounds like the Bailey Savings and Loan from "It's a Wonderful Life"), Gil Ivy discovers he is now just a number, and the bank part of a chain.
Told by the local FmHA administrator he must partially liquidate, Gil says of farming, "Hell, it's a way of life" and the bureaucrat says, "No, Gil, it's a business." Ooo, ouch.
Some fuss is being made over "Country" because it's a Disney production (through subsidiary Touchstone Films) that seems actually to take a political stance; Ronald Reagan's smiling photo is prominent in the bureaucrat's office. In fact, though, the politics of the picture are sub-subliminal. Jimmy Carter's Russian grain embargo is blamed just as much as Reagan policies are, and both only implicitly.
When Shepard's character unravels, the movie starts coming apart too. There doesn't seem any logical reason for this plot development except to shift the spotlight even more emphatically to Lange. In many of their scenes together, she's in focus and he isn't. The vision of a glamoroso Hollywood star noblesse oblig'ing in the heartland does present itself; here's Jessica playing Greer Garson and riding great-ladylike to the rescue of the American farmer. She tries hard, and she is as visually compelling as ever, but she never quite cuts it as simple folk.
When the film ends with a news bulletin, a la "All the President's Men," stating that a federal judge in North Dakota has prohibited foreclosure on farmers without due process, the movie seems not just facile, but dishonest. We're supposed to think that Jewell Ivy's wee act of civil disobedience -- causing a mild ruckus as her family's belongings are auctioned off -- has made life rosy for farmers again. Uh-huh.
The auction scene turns out to be the climax, but director Richard Pearce doesn't set it up in climactic terms. So it's a jolt to discover that Lange's little outburst is meant to be the dramatic high point, especially when we've seen it over and over in trailers (and when there've been much more powerful scenes of real-life embattled farmers trying to block foreclosure on evening newscasts). The scene plays more like the beginning of a farmers' revolt. Ending the film with it is like ending "Rocky" with the training sequence and omitting the showdown grudge match.
Pearce does nicely evoke the farm life, though. The film's small details carry more weight than its storyline does. As grandpa, poor old Wilfrid Grimley just hangs around like a black wreath pinned to the front door, but the two actors who play the Ivy children -- Therese Graham as Marlene and the seemingly anagrammatically named Levi L. Knebel as Carlisle -- are refreshingly un-Hollywoodsy.
There's a kind of hush all over the world, or at least all over the prairie, with Pearce calling the shots. Slow pans are the chief device for creating an aura of bleak chic. The director is so intent on maintaining a reverential tone that it's as if he and the crew had sneaked up on the actors on tippytoe. One man's reverence is another's ennui, and occasionally the lives of the farmers seem too self-sacrificingly diligent to be true.
Sympathies for the protagonists are complicated by the fact that, when all is said and done, they haven't been very good farmers, as the bureaucrat charged, and really weren't able to make a go of things. You wonder why they don't just sell the place and move to Dubuque, get a nice garden apartment, and put a flower box on the patio (you would't wonder that if the filmmakers did a more convincing job). It's awfully hard to picture the farmers of America rising up in grateful praise of Lange and her mission-movie, but city folks with rural roots may be satisfied with the picture's nostalgic ambiance: cheeseburgers served on bread, grace at the table, "Faith of our Fathers" on a Sunday morning.
And, of course, Jessica Lange as Shane, suiting up and sending the bad guys packing.