Country (1984)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1984. , , . Screenplay by . Cinematography by . Produced by , William D. Wittliff. Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by , . Film Editing by .

Of the three major Hollywood farm dramas made in 1984, all of which garnered Best Actress Oscar nominations for their stars, this one is the most adamant about condemning the effects of Reagan-era trickle-down economics on agricultural communities (and the message was received, as the President responded quite severely to it). Only the second release from Disney’s new “grown-up” film studio Touchstone Pictures, it’s an absorbing and emotionally affecting story about a family struggling to keep it together when their world is falling apart: first a tornado takes its share of their corn crop, then it’s an even bigger disaster, human greed, that does the rest.

Gil and Jewell Ivy (, Jessica Lange) spend their days working the land, tending to their animals and getting the best price they can for their crops, but they’re also operating under an Farmers Home Administration loan that is now being called in by the suits at head office. The credit union, which once encouraged this Iowa community to do business with them when times were good, has decided that a number of properties are bad risks after years of meager harvests that have driven interest rates higher and put them into even more debt. Angry conversations with the Ivys’ loan officer are followed by the family receiving notice by mail that they must pay off their entire balance within 30 days or else forfeit their farm, one which Lange’s family has been living on for a century. Gil, having been made to feel a worthless failure as a farmer, begins to spiral personally and gives up hope, which causes a rift between him and Jewell as she becomes determined to do whatever she can to not give up her home.

While William D. Wittliff’s script has more than its fair share of convenient though never preposterous manipulations, the film is performed with a natural, charismatic zest that sucks you completely in to the commanding drama at its centre. Lange gives one of her most powerful performances while rarely raising her voice above calm confidence, just watching her fry chicken while making phone calls to drum up support from the community is bewitchingly absorbing, one of many moments in which director Richard Peace makes the family’s activities part of the process that keep not only the farm going but the film as well. Arguments happen while cows are being milked, family crises are discussed while harvesting corn, someone is always feeding a sheep or manning the stove, and what the “college boys” at the bank don’t realize when they place financially vulnerable people into even more dire circumstances is that in their desire to adjust the numbers in their books they are ruining the rhythms of family life and, eventually, are going to destroy entire communities.

The message at the centre of the story is not at all difficult to discern, in fact Reagan calling it propaganda wasn’t technically out of line, but between a dynamic script, powerful direction by Richard Pearce and superb acting from the cast, it never feels like a political screed, rather a gut-wrenching story about a family whose survival you care deeply about from the very beginning.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Actress (Jessica Lange)

Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Actress-Drama (Jessica Lange)

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