Volume 91, Issue 15

Tuesday, September 23, 1997

dirty pool


Fertile farm land blossoms in Iowa

By Brett Walther
Gazette Writer

During the first 15 minutes of A Thousand Acres, viewers are presented with images of an idyllic rural utopia known as Iowa. The film presents this land as one where grown women make breakfast for their aging "dear daddies" every morning; where social gatherings are limited to church dinners and Monopoly tournaments; and where farmers wear plaid and debate whether John Deer tractors are really superior to Case-Internationals.

Then, almost immediately, the audience is introduced to the Cooks, a well-respected family within this small Iowa county. They are a family that seems to have it all, as they own and operate – you guessed it – a thousand acres of fertile farmland.

Yet, once one peels away this wholesome American-dream veneer, a family burdened with terrible secrets and wrought with conflict is found. This is when things get interesting.

The first glimpse of what lies beneath this facade of tranquillity occurs when Daddy Cook, played by Jason Robards (Philadelphia, Parenthood), decides he will split up his beloved farmland into three equal portions amongst his three daughters – played expertly by Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

What follows was lifted straight out of act one, scene one of King Lear: The patriarchal father becoming distraught by the thoughtless words of the youngest of his three daughters and as a result, he disowns that daughter and denies her any sort of inheritance.

Much like Lear, Robards' character quickly comes to regret his decision of handing over the control of his greatest possession, to his daughters. He realizes too late that he is not prepared to give up his livelihood.

After this scene, it's all downhill for the Cook clan. The last hour-and-a-half of the film is utterly devoid of humour and the relentless chain of sordid revelations and tragedies that follows is downright depressing.

What makes A Thousand Acres such an involving piece of contemporary drama is the control that the performers have over their roles. All four lead characters undergo drastic personality changes over the span of two hours and Jessica Lange is perhaps the most effective. Her transition from an unassuming, selfless woman who is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, into an independent, expressive and capable urbanite is truly spectacular.

Lange's character, Ginny, is well-complemented by Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Ginny's sister Rose. Pfeiffer's dynamic performance allows her to prove her considerable acting talents and is only disappointing in her final few scenes when she fails to convince the audience of Rose's terminal illness battle.

While this is a thoughtful and involving film, one area of the production can be criticized – the fact that Hollywood knows as much about farming as farmers in Iowa know about acting. In one scene, the lead characters stand before a cornfield that is only about four feet high. The next day, the cornfield is tall enough for Jason Robards to get lost in, after he storms away from a furious argument with his daughters. Also, the farm wives are rarely seen without an apple pie or some other form of home-baked good in their hands; and when a farmer isn't at work in the fields, he's always drinking.

These inaccuracies and unfortunate stereotypes are annoying to anyone who has come from, or is familiar with a real rural background. Nonetheless, the nit-picks do not really detract from the enjoyment of an otherwise quality production.

Without its perfect cast, A Thousand Acres might have failed. It is because the four leads approached their roles with such conviction and sensitivity, that the end result is such an involving character-driven drama. A Thousand Acres deals with a host of powerful emotions and social issues, but above all of this, it is a story concerned with family relationships, both good and bad.

A Thousand Acres should not be avoided because of its lack of laughs or its serious subject matter. This is a film which relies on the strength of its characters and on its well-written script, which was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley. It provides a welcome change from the usual big-budget blockbusters that have been churned out by Hollywood lately.

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997