"A Thousand Acres" Is Like "King Lear," Only More Difficult To Follow
By Stacey Richter
A THOUSAND ACRES is one of those movies that can really kill your buzz. It's a tragedy of domestic proportions about family and illness and trauma and betrayal and abuse. The genre reaches back to the '40s when actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis played the martyred divas of the matinee. A Thousand Acres is a little more modern (though I swear the women in it engage in the making of pies), but it shares one important trait with its predecessors--it's all about self-sacrificing, angelic women who don't get what they want. A Thousand Acres, though, has something going for it that other recent movies in this mold (like last year's Marvin's Room) lack: It has a complex, literary script, based on Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and written by Laura Jones.
The trick of A Thousand Acres is that it's King Lear told from the point of view of the bad daughters. Here, Regan and Goneril are known as Rose and Ginny, married daughters still faithfully living on the family-owned farm on which they grew up. The eponymous thousand acres is a beautiful, fertile farm ruled by their father, Larry Cook (Jason Robards), a formidable, aging patriarch who's managed to run a profitable business for years. In a magnanimous fit of estate planning, Cook elects to divide the farm between his three daughters. The youngest, a sweetie named Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who still looks 25 despite the fact that she's 39), expresses reservations, and in a spasm of temper her father cuts her out of the deal.
Sound familiar? If it doesn't, A Thousand Acres may be sort of perplexing. A viewer who isn't familiar with King Lear might wonder why on earth Farmer Cook is acting like such an A-hole. It is inexplicable, given the context of the film. Especially early in the story, too much territory is covered too quickly and the lurches in Larry Cook's behavior are never adequately explained. One minute he's a sweet and doting grandfather; the next he's a raging, bereft madman jogging through a storm. Shakespeare took the time to explain this; director Jocelyn Moorhouse does not.
Other aspects of the story depart from Lear in a more intriguing way. Rather than being corrupt and selfish, it turns out that the pair of daughters who do get the kingdom, I mean farm, have good reason to be angry at their father--an alcoholic, abusive patriarch with more skeletons in his closet than Jeffrey Dahmer had in his freezer. One by one, the daughters unearth long-buried secrets and put them out to air, in the yard, where the laundry billows in the wind. (Apparently, affluent farm women in the midwest don't believe in electric dryers).
A Thousand Acres stumbles between being uncomfortably sentimental and having a deeper sense of resonance that unfortunately never gets a chance to play itself out. The performances by Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange are excellent; Lange in particular endears herself by wrecking her beauty with a frumpy, farm-gal haircut. Her portrayal of Ginny--an eternally optimistic, artificially sunny farm wife whose awareness of herself deepens as her life falls apart--has an energy and veracity that's a pleasure to watch. Her husband asks, "What happened to you? You always looked on the good side of things?" Lange brings to her character a rare moment of self-knowledge when she says, "I was a ninny."
But A Thousand Acres moves too swiftly for us to really get a chance to linger on character development. Almost as soon as Ginny falls for a charming, unreliable neighbor-boy, the affair is over. So much happens in this movie that it's a wonder there are moments when it doesn't feel rushed. Embedded within is a courtroom drama, a hospital drama, a romance, and all the prettified, idealized farm-wife work of cooking, baking, cutting out patterns and making clothes. (Can't they just go to Wal-Mart?) A Thousand Acres makes an attempt at being something of an oxymoron: A domestic epic. It's an interesting effort, but not an entirely successful one.
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