Rural America has been politicized and pigeonholed for decades, exploited by deceitful candidates of all partisan persuasions, stereotyped by a pervasive popular culture, and frequently represented in the most superficial fashion by an often-patronizing mass media. If not literally realized, these various patterns exist in a contemporary undercurrent that runs throughout Richard Pearce’s 1984 drama, Country, aptly named to be both specific in cultural and geographic setting and general enough in broad, regional assignment. Here the milieu is shown to comprise a distinct existence, but it’s a substantial, often overlooked component of national character, and Country presents that character, exemplified by a single representative family, as it is poised at a critical juncture in its evolution.
Country is centered on Iowa’s Ivy family—father Gil (Sam Shepard), mother Jewell (Jessica Lange), children, in descending age, Carlisle (Levi L. Knebel), Marlene (Therese Graham), and Missy (Stephanie Stacie-Poyner), and Jewell’s father, Otis (Wilford Brimley). They are but one of many comparable farming generations, generations supported by the men who toil in the fields and the women who tend to the dinners at home, baby on hip (a simplification, to be sure, but with some basis in reality and essentially suitable to Pearce’s emblematic narrative). The Ivy’s farming life initially appears difficult yet simplistic; it’s hard work but it’s typical and time-honored. However, the first indication of how Country will upend this conventional conception comes by way of the opening soundtrack, in the form of agricultural stock numbers broadcast over the radio. These market figures suggest something more complex at work, something intangible, something volatile. It’s something that will assault Country’s depicted livelihood in the manifest form of meddling bureaucrats and callous politicians, outsiders who inevitably involve themselves in what most of these white-collar money men will never understand.
Weather is obviously of vital importance to the farmer. And for families like the Ivys, when weather takes a turn for the worse, it isn’t just bad, it can become life-altering. Such magnitude is evoked immediately in Country, with a concentrated initiating sequence in which a wayward twister descends upon the land, and Carlisle nearly suffocates under a mound of harvested corn. But there the Ivys are the next day, back at it, persevering as they do and have always done. It’s getting harder, though. Climate fluctuations are one thing—the luck of the crop, as repeated in a familiar farming refrain, may change as soon as next year—but that cyclical assurance is now compounded by the intricacies of financial wrangling, dizzying bookkeeping, balancing profits and losses, and contending with dubious loans endorsed by the Federal Farmers Home Administration. Farming is an inevitable struggle, with erratic costs and concerns, and it’s well-nigh impossible to put a figure on certain aspects of this reality, to quantify what is so fickle. But as the Ivys are doing it, this reality is clearly unsustainable, a fact pounced upon by ruthlessly pragmatic banks, and by those who don’t seen farming as a way of life, but rather as a capricious business. “You’re a farmer,” Jewell tells Gil, having long ago accepted the routine adversity, “your whole life’s been hard times.”
Country’s existential tension is enacted with swift potency. Pearce and screenwriter William D. Wittliff authenticate the Ivy’s bewildering circumstance—their survival threatened by the pressures of accruing debt—with equal measures of frustration and confusion and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. It’s unpleasant to see Gil lash out at the children who clearly don’t understand what’s at stake, though Carlisle very much wants to, but the ethical quality of these characters is seldom in doubt, largely because the film has been so firm in its establishment of their genuinely decent nature. The potential disintegration of this family is, however, very real, and there are times when the bonds of vulnerable domestic unity are severely strained by reckless violence and the implied suggestion that perhaps Gil’s stubborn pride (part of his innate temperament) is rivaled by what may well be his ineffectual management—with hundreds of thousands in assets, and yet just $9,000 to live off of a year, speculative hindsight questions his capabilities and even kindly Otis voices regret at having handed over his family’s farm to his son-in-law.
During the early portions of Country, Pearce’s camera tactfully holds on a silent, staring Jewell. She is, for at least the first half of the film, its introspective core, while Gil is the more engaged and active of the two. Complementary and with evident chemistry (on screen and off, as it turns out), Lange worked with Shepard before and after this film, on Frances (1982), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Don’t Come Knocking (2005), and Far North (1988), which Shepard directed. But when Gil succumbs to alcohol-enhanced depression and rescinds from his family, it is she who takes charge. Lange co-produced the film and received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win for her performance, and she receives lavish, deserved praise from Lee Gambin, in his enthusiastic commentary on the Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Country. Certainly, the advancement of her determined character is the personified heart of the picture. The image of her working against impinging sheep dogs is a pathetic and earnest sight, an illuminating example of her willful constitution. And as the vehicle for Country’s emphasis on collective achievement, her rallying of those similarly distressed proves one of the more inspirational features of the film. In the “we’re the people” tradition of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Lange’s progressively empowered wife and mother becomes the proud catalyst for communal headway, rounding up the names of families soon to be plagued by the same sort of injustice, if they haven’t been already (to illustrate the situation’s extremity, one family’s patriarch is driven to suicide).
So compelling was Lange’s engagement, and so persuasive was her experience making the film, that she along with Sissy Spacek and Jane Fonda were brought forth to testify before the United States Congress, speaking about the traumatic conditions of America’s heartland. Opening in the fall of 1984, Country also caught the attention of then-president Ronald Reagan, who decried the supposed propaganda of the picture even though part of its provocation also stemmed from the prior policies of Jimmy Carter. In any case, this rejoinder does indicate the mixed messages that trigger what transpires in the film: one administration encourages expansion, while another cracks down on the costs; one stresses national strength, while another promotes foreign sales, and on and on. The resulting bankruptcy, the loss of property or, worst of all, the loss of land, never changes.
Joining several features that concurrently focused on what Gambin terms “poor white people” (it’s not as derisive as it sounds), films like the Spacek-starring The River and the Fonda-starring TV movie The Dollmaker, both from 1984 as well, Country was shot principally on location, in Dunkerton and Readlyn, Iowa. Quite naturally, the cinematography by David M. Walsh purifies an understated atmosphere of seasonal dampness, of scenic isolation, and of the bone-chilling onset of winter. With antecedents in the Western genre, the landscape is both gorgeous and threatening, as Gambin notes, “ethereal” and “earthy.” Despite the significance of its release date, though, the precise connotations of its sociopolitical context, Country remains exceptional because of its timeless realism, the beauty of its endearing, albeit stark, sincerity. It is is an excellent film for many reasons, not the least of which is the authenticity of its production design, which encapsulates and vividly executes, wholly without pretense, a social niche validated by 4-H flags hanging on walls, by a box of crayons here, a box of diapers there, by the simple act of sharing chewing tobacco with one’s teenage son or watching football after church, and by making small sacrifices that mean the world to those involved. In what would in today’s indie market be the backdrop for ironic, angsty moping, the pastoral placement of Pearce’s film houses an unaffected cast of characters, tried and tested but tough and sustained by straightforward humor, common resolve, and enduring love.