Country (1984): Farm Tale, Starring Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange in Oscar Nominated Turn

Three movies in 1984 described farming from a distinctly female point of view: Places in the Heart starring Sally Field; Country featuring Jessica Lange, and The River with Sissy Spacek.

The appearance of three movies about farming in one year might suggest that the farmers’ plight was the most important issue on the national agenda, but it was merely a coincidence. What was not a coincidence, though, was the fact that all three featured strong heroines.

In the 1980s, every major actress in Hollywood sought to play more “substantial,” preferably moralistic heroines. After two decades of under-representation and stereotypical casting, the American cinema finally offered stronger roles for women.

Country was the least sentimental of the three films, even though it, too, deals more with the myth of farming than its realities. The picture is inspired by newspaper articles about farmers’ economic hardships in the Midwest between 1981 and 1983. Though Reagan was in power, the film attacks the farm policies set by the Carter administration, particularly the embargo on sales to the Soviet Union.

A tornado during corn harvest destroys the crops, and with the FMHA (Federal Farmers Home Administration) calling in on short notice their loans, the farmers face bankruptcy and the loss of their land. Tom McMullen (Matt Clark), the county representative of FMHA, tells the Ivys that, “something is wrong with the way you’re doing things.”

The Ivys have four hundred thousand dollars worth of assets, but they cannot make a decent living. “Low prices and 14 percent interest don’t help,” says Jewell Ivy (Jessica Lange). Carrying too much loan debt, McMullen sees two ways out: “a fairy godmother to help you catch these loans up,” or, “you’re going to have to partially liquidate.” Gil (Sam Shepard) claims that McMullen “can’t look at it short-term,” that farming is “a way of life, we may have several bad years, but it always comes back.” One of the conflicts seems to be between farming as a way of making a living and farming as a way of life.

For McMullen “It’s business, and if you don’t look at it that way, you’re behind the times.” But the unfeeling McMullen is dismissed as “a college boy who knows nothing but numbers.” The narrative thus perpetuates the myth of the superiority of pragmatic experience over formal education acquired from books.

There is also a domestic conflict. A proud and stubborn man, Gil doesn’t want “everybody knowing our business,” wishing to “keep our troubles to ourselves.” “That kinda pride’ll kill you quicker’n a gun,” says Otis (Wilford Brimley), Jewell’s father. Worse yet, Gil won’t let Jewell get a job, “I’m not gonna have my wife waiting on tables for tips.”

The tension between romantic individualism and organized collectivism is expressed in the intergenerational conflict. Otis is in favor of the Depression’s style of collectivism: “You get your neighbors, share your equipment, trade your labor.” “Beg, borrow, or steal,” he says, “but, by God, you hang on to this land.”

An old-fashioned farmer, Otis stands for continuity: “The land was yours, just like it was mine after it was my daddy’s. Just like it’ll be your children’s, when their time comes.” “Our blood goes deep as the roots of that tree in this ground, and ain’t nobody can yank us with a piece of paper.” Watching his father plow behind his mules, Otis determined to never leave the place; he never did, except for fighting overseas during the WWII.

The bank’s president, Walter Logan, a cold-blooded bureaucrat, also subscribes to farming as big, modern corporate business. “We’re part of a chain now,” he says, “Numbers have to support any loans we make.” Gil is for a personal approach, missing the times “when the bank used to loan money on the man, not the numbers.”

This illustrates the organizational dilemma of impersonal bureaucracy versus personal relationships between officials and customers. Jewell tells the banker that she “would rather be a thief than do what you do for living.” The farmers’ problems are seen as a fault of governmental policies. Gil was encouraged to expand, adopting wholeheartedly Carter’s slogan, “We’re gonna feed the world!” However, soon after, the government put embargoes on foreign sales. McMullen refuses to take responsibility, claiming: “The FMHA doesn’t set government policy.” And he concludes: “You’re a has been, all you little farmers.”

The scene is depressing. In Allison, a town with population of 2,064 people, signs of “Out of Business” are common, along with mass sales of farm implements of tractors, combines, plows, and cultivators.

At the end, Jewell is in favor of taking action, “We gotta do something.” “I don’t know how to work harder,” Gil says, “I don’t know how to beat those goddamn pencil-pushers neither.” Under pressure, he collapses emotionally: he starts drinking heavily, gets nasty and abusive with his children, and finally walks out on them.

Collective action, organized by Jewell, is the only viable solution. In the film’s climax, the farmers rebel against the government-sponsored auction. But the film can’t conceal the cracks in the mythology of farming and “the land.” “We’re maybe the first generation in the country,” says a farm wife, “who don’t necessarily believe life’s gonna be better for our children than it was for us.”

An earth mother figure (a modern Ma Joad), Jewell holds the family together. Throughout the film, an emphasis is placed on the centrality of the nuclear family in providing love, support, and unity. The film begins appropriately enough in the kitchen, which is the setting of many subsequent scenes. Jewell holds Missy, her 10-months-old daughter, on her hip and at the same time cooks hamburgers.

The relationship between Jewell and Gil, and between them and their children, is natural and spontaneous. There is bickering, competition for attention, and sensitivity to marital strife between parents. The film closely observes the routine lives of farmers. The most effective scenes are those that are the least self-conscious, without the platitudes, one of which shows Jewell rounding up sheep that are taken away to settle a debt.

Shot in Iowa with many real-life farmers, Country opts for a realistic visual style. While the myths are grounded in specific reality, the film’s messages overwhelm in their heavy-handedness. At the end, it’s unclear who the real “villains” are. Is the film against Carter and/or Reagan’s farm policies

Moreover, Gil’s character remains an enigma. Accused of being a bad farmer, the film never asks to what extent the charge is valid. With all the attention to details, Country continues to perpetuate prevalent myths in American culture, such as the symbolic importance of “the Land.” These myths have been so powerful that are maintained, even if they contradict logical reasoning.

The critic Pauline Kael was observant when she criticized the movie and its characters: In this movie, Jessica Lange (a very good actress), as the heroine, “is not playing a character, but a set of virtues that she associates with her idea of “ordinary” luminous Midwest women, sort of a contemporary Ma Joad (John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath”).