Lange at the Farm – Part 2 in “A Thousand Acres” (1997) | Blu-ray Review
A highly compromised and ultimately disappointing adaptation of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel A Thousand Acres seems to have been a grueling experience for all the main players, including Michelle Pfeiffer, who had been working on getting the film version produced through most of the early 1990s. After poor test audience responses, the film was heavily re-edited, resulting in some choppy continuity (particularly with Lange’s hairstyles) and dreadful omniscient narration. And yet, as Lange herself pointed out after publicly denigrating the final film product, the core performances make this star-studded debacle as watchable, and even compelling as ever.
When farming patriarch Larry Cook (Jason Robards) decides to divide his prosperous family farm to his three daughters, Ginny (Jessica Lange), Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the youngest daughter expresses doubts about the prospects, leading her to be locked out of the final agreement. However, once Cook loses control of his lands, a swift decline in dementia leads to immediate regret and acting out on his part. Caroline, who is a successful lawyer in Des Moines, takes up her father’s cause and sues her two older sisters to re-obtain her father’s land, which forces a ripple effect of retribution and revenge among the Cook clan, all of whom harbor memories of damaging traumas from growing up on the farm.
Like Lange’s appearance in 1986’s Crimes of the Heart, which saw her star as a sister to Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek, the sibling trifecta of Lange, Pfeiffer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh doesn’t quite work, casting wise. And yet Lange and Pfeiffer get a handful of moments which sometimes allow us to forget the heavily flawed high-profile melodrama which sank Jocelyn Moorhouse’s directorial prospects for nearly two decades afterwards (despite her earlier success with 1995’s How to Make an American Quilt she wouldn’t direct another feature until 2015’s The Dressmaker). Leigh is folded into a role a bit too reminiscent of her character in 1994’s Dolores Claiborne.
The feature belongs to Lange, the eldest, frustratingly passive sister who can’t seem to break free of her inferiority complex. Of course, as the plot unfolds, Smiley’s Shakespearean inspired narrative (the novel is King Lear from the perspective of his villainous daughters, Goneril and Regan) takes a dip into Tennessee Williams’ style Southern Gothic, with buried babies, incest, rape, adultery, breast cancer, and severe emotional trauma providing so much local color it’s no surprise audiences had difficulty unpacking all the seething discord. This is the type of perverse material which would have made a fine high-profile spectacle from the late 1950s or 60s, when its issues could ride the line between sacred and profane, obvious and subtle.
One of the final roles of two-time Oscar winner Jason Robards, A Thousand Acres is cluttered with notables, including supporting roles for Keith Carradine and Colin Firth, while a young Michelle Williams and Elisabeth Moss appear a couple times as Pfeiffer’s daughters. And yet its Lange, who snagged a Golden Globe nod for her work here, who defies the flaws of the filmmaking (similarly to the equally troubled Losing Isaiah, 1995) as a tragic victim of circumstance.
Kino Lorber presents A Thousand Acres in 1.85:1 with 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo. Picture and sound quality are serviceable in this initial Blu-ray transfer, which includes a worthwhile commentary track from Jocelyn Moorhouse. Besides some Kino Lorber trailers, the disc is otherwise sans extra features.
A prime example of stellar source material marred by studio interference and commercial sanitization, A Thousand Acres is also an example of the kind of exaggerated emotional primacy once allowed actresses of a certain caliber.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆