[4 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Country is the first in a long series of roles that Jessica Lange would become famous for: the farm-wife/mother. It also was, for those paying close attention, the first outspoken political statement Lange would utter. As time would go on to tell, it certainly would not be the last. Her cause in 1984 was the plight of American farmer and the unjust practices of corrupt government agencies that strong-armed them into submission. It is a somewhat straightforward story by cinematic means, but the subversive ideas are epic in scope.
Hot off the heels of her double whammy in 1982 (Frances and Tootsie), Lange was able to use her status to co-produce and star in this unfettered portrait of a family struggling to make everything work. She is Jewell, the matriarch of a small family that depends on their land for income, only to be plagued by bank foreclosures and violent twisters. Dutiful, tough and fired-up opposite real-life partner Sam Shepard (the second of several successful, heated on-screen collaborations), Lange is relaxed and cautious with her creation and her care shows most assuredly in a scene where the family is out in the field during a windstorm. Her son becomes trapped under a gigantic pile of corn and her fury as she digs him out is nearly as powerful as the gale. Then, the next morning, its back to serving up pancakes with rollers in her hair as if nothing happened. This detail is effective because it shows the versatility a woman who must be ready for anything if she is going to survive this kind of life. There isn’t much room to fuss over something that might have happened to her hard-working son the previous night when there are babies to be fed and chores to be done and records to be kept.
Country doesn’t really pull any punches when it comes to the negative effects of the hard knocks taken by the family. Jewell and Gil’s marriage begins to disintegrate when he starts drinking and stops fighting for the farm and starts fighting with their children, physically and verbally. The homespun film conveys a seemingly ancient sense of community strength and respect for tradition along with an un-ironic sense of earnestness. The characters depend on each other, neighbors, family, and all. In a scene where Jewel and Gil agree to do a simple favor for a friend who they know is about to be run off his land by creditors, the two principals take a “less-is-more” approach with an unfussy reverence for individual privacy. They merely help him without asking for too much information. In the hands of lesser performers, these clichés would have come off inert, but in the hands of pros like Lange and Shepard the conventions are fresh.
Lange somehow makes this woman endearing and actually functional, rather than a weak stereotype. She even manages to endow the character (that might have been envisioned as a nervous wreck or a melodramatic sap) with a wry sense of humor even in the face of repossession and the farm being auctioned off. It is a master class in social crusading and self-sacrifice that upstarts like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Charlize Theron (North Country) likely obsessed over as part of their preparation to play similarly heroic roles.
Even though Lange may play the naïve, small-town woman up against crushing odds often, she makes Jewell’s confusion convincingly build to a cool, controlled rage. It is clear that the actress puts a unique stamp on her characters every time. By the time the town unites to stop the crooked auctions, led in their rallying by the wiser and empowered Jewell, the outcome is electrifying: she begins a climactic chant of “no-sale” that is so powerful it actually works. Pride and loyalty are two important values implied in the code of conduct for farmers used to this way of life. It’s a refreshing reaction of trust and kindness that make for the best kind of epics: the small ones that matter the most.