Lange at the Farm – Part 1 in “Country” (1984) | Blu-ray Review
The 1984 melodrama Country exists as a minor yet notable footnote in the limited but prolific filmography of Jessica Lange. Her first role following her 1982 double Academy Award nominations for Frances and Tootsie (which resulted in a Best Supporting Actress statue for the latter), was also the first and only film she’s produced to date (only returning to this role once again in 2017 for Ryan Murphy’s “Feud”). Co-starring her Frances co-star Sam Shepard (who she’d famously live with for the next two decades) in their second of five on-screen collaborations, it had all makings of a well-mounted vanity project from a notable actor. Directed by Richard Pearce, who won the Golden Bear at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival for his debut Heartland, the film did snag her third of six Oscar nods. And yet, the film itself was met with rather mixed enthusiasm and altogether forgotten despite several of these distinctions.
Jewell and Gil Ivy (Lange and Sam Shepard) are Iowan farmers, working a land that has been in Jewell’s family for over a century, as proudly confirmed by her father (Wilford Brimley). But when inclement weather destroys their harvest, the Ivys suddenly find themselves behind on their FHA loan. Normally, this isn’t such a big deal, as everyone in their industry knows there are good and bad years. But a new FHA regional administrator has dictated all the loans must now be strictly enforced, leading the Ivys to the brink of paying all their loan in 30 days or see their farm auctioned off so the bank can recoup their money.
As far as farming dramas go, Country is more of a socioeconomic snapshot of the foreboding troubles American industries would begin to suffer in the following decades. And yet, nearly every notable motion picture dealing with farmers or farming is locked into the bitter contention of economic stability. If in Hollywood one is only as profitable as their last picture, farmers are only as successful as their last yield, which is why perhaps such landscapes have created their own significant subgenre. While Lange’s performance alone elevates something like Country above the likes of Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price (2012), it’s not too dissimilar from the recent French Cesar winner Bloody Milk (2017), in which a young farmer is threatened to have his entire livelihood destroyed by the waywardness of Mother Nature.
A more compelling farm drama (but more compromised film), also featuring Lange on an Iowa homestead, is Jocelyn Moorhouse’s 1997 adaptation of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (utilizing the template of King Lear, it finds a simultaneous resurgence from Kino Lorber on Blu-ray). And yet there’s something a bit stagnant about the melodrama of William D. Witliff’s (The Black Stallion, “Lonesome Dove”) screenplay, which takes a compelling predicament (and something which would later become a rudimentary version of the 2008 housing crisis) but can’t rightly fashion the familial characteristics.
Lange does what she does best, transforming from sweet caregiver into ferocious she-bear, transcending the purported weakness of her husband (which is never correctly shown but rather told, despite what seems a rather capable presence from Sam Shepard). Likewise, the relationship with her father, Wilford Brimley (a combo which mirrors Lange and Charles Durning from Tootsie), is undefined. The third act reaches for some Norma Rae-ish community organization on Lange’s part, which ends with a muted climax at the auction of their machinery. The payoff is unclear, and despite a glowing review about how “the movie’s anger moved me as much as its story” from Roger Ebert, Country doesn’t end so much on a resolution as it does a false sense of community empowerment.
Kino Lorber presents Country in 1.85:1. Picture and sound quality are intact in this transfer, although DP David M. Walsh’s frames seem to be purposely focused on washed out, gritty exteriors to enforce the working-class realities of 1980s Iowa. Presented as part of their Studio Classics label, Kino provides audio commentary from film historian Lee Gambin, and besides a handful of Kino Lorber trailers, is sans extra features.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆