Thousand Acres, A (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When viewing a melodrama like A Thousand Acres, it's easy to label it as a "chick flick" or a "tearjerker." However, such a facile categorization would do the movie a disservice, since it possesses a layer of depth that most films of this sort lack. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, working from Laura Jones' adaptation of Jane Smiley's novel (which, in turn, updated Shakespeare's King Lear), gives A Thousand Acres the emotional pitch of Fried Green Tomatoes (even though the stories are vastly dissimilar). Although the plot is undeniably overwrought at times, the characters remain strong and reliable, and it's their believability that pulls us through.

The story is presented from the point-of-view of fortysomething Ginny Cook Smith (Jessica Lange), who burdens the film with a voiceover narrative that is occasionally useful, but more often tedious. She's the oldest of the three daughters of farmer Larry Cook (Jason Robards), the "most respected man in the county." Along with her husband, Ty (Keith Carradine), she still lives on her father's 1000 acre farm. Her sister May (Michelle Pfeiffer) resides there as well, along with her husband, Peter (Kevin Anderson), and their two teenage daughters. Ginny and May's baby sister, Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has left the farm to become a lawyer in nearby Des Moines. Despite the distance between her and the Cook farm, Caroline is closer to her father than either Ginny or May.

Things begin happening when the son of a neighbor, Jess Clark (Colin Firth), returns home after a thirteen-year absence. On the day of Jess' welcome back party, Larry announces his intention to turn over control of his farm to his three daughters. When Caroline wonders aloud whether this is a good thing, Larry cuts her out of his plans. The entire 1000 acres is then divided between Ginny & Ty and May & Peter. But, even though he initiated the change, losing control of the farm doesn't sit well with Larry, and he becomes angry and abusive about his lot in life. And, as his rage escalates, deeply-buried secrets begin to ooze into the open. As in David Lynch's vision of America, A Thousand Acres shows that green fields and crisply-painted houses can hide a festering horror.

A Thousand Acres has a choppy feel, almost certainly the result of the book-to-screen transition, and the pre-epilogue ending happens with surprising suddenness. Subplots get short changed and characters seemingly disappear without warning. Arguably, the complexity of the storyline may be too ambitious for 100-plus minute running time. Nevertheless, Moorhouse (How to Make an American Quilt) does a fine job with the material she is given to work with. In lesser hands, this could have turned into little more than another big-screen soap opera. However, by generating an effective rapport between the audience and the main characters, Moorhouse gives us some meat to chew on. She also manages to develop a number of multi-dimensional characters by showing the good and bad in everyone. Some will doubtless complain that the film engages in routine man-bashing, but anyone who looks carefully will see that the women are nearly as flawed as their male counterparts.

Three of the four leads give powerful performances. Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for one of the least-impressive films on her resume (Blue Sky), is very good here as the self-deluded Ginny. As our narrator, she provides the anchor in a turbulent dramatic sea. Michelle Pfeiffer shows an edge that we're unaccustomed to. This isn't a lightweight glamour role, and she is up to the challenge of pulling it off. Jason Robards manages to bring out both sides of Larry -- the evil, lecherous creep and the fumbling, lost old man. Only Jennifer Jason Leigh is less-than-impressive, and that's more a function of the lack of exposure and development accorded to her character than a knock on her performance. The supporting cast includes Keith Carradine as the ineffectual Ty, Kevin Anderson as the self- destructive Peter, and Colin Firth as the charismatic Jess, who entertains ideas of seducing all three Cook daughters.

A Thousand Acres covers a lot of ground, and raises numerous questions about the demons that some families keep buried. The land means many things in this film: a source of pride, a means of economic survival, a financial windfall, and, most importantly, a tool for revenge. This is the kind of movie that you experience more with your emotions than with your intellect. It's not a dumb film, but its undisputed strength lies in the way it tears at the heart. Moorhouse's manipulation is skillful, and that makes it easier to forgive the occasional missteps.

Thousand Acres, A (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1997-09-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1