MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Country’: Hope, Love and Vietnam
“In Country” (at the Plaza, Westwood) is set in a small Kentucky town called Hopewell. And, in a way, that sums up the movie’s sentiments. It’s a film of beatific intentions and upbeat goals. It hopes well for America, and it wants--in its portrayal of one average family and the impact made on them by the Vietnam War--to draw its audience together, unite them in a vast, healing flood of sympathy.
Sometimes it does. The ending--with teen-age Samantha (Emily Lloyd), her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis) and her portly grandmother Mamaw (Peggy Rea) at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington--is charged with emotion. The sight of the memorial, gleaming and black, stretching out on a verdant lawn, with its seemingly endless roll call of the dead; the visitors searching for the names they love and remember; the almost ritualistic way they find and touch the graven name of Sam’s father . . . all this is done with a mixture of intensity and discretion, sunlight and shadow, that becomes disarming and even devastating.
Like “Field of Dreams,” this is a movie about reconciliation that tries to become an act of reconciliation itself. Based on a novel by Bobbie Ann Mason, it tries to view Vietnam non-sensationally, to capture the problems of many veterans. “In Country,” a phrase that refers to Vietnam from the soldier’s viewpoint, tries to connect with the basic, bedrock feelings that many of us associate with the strong inner core of American people. It wants to make its audience a community again.
The director, Norman Jewison, has a plush, silky craftsmanship; he eases us into the scenes effortlessly. His central character, Sam, is a teen-ager who might be defined by the word “spunky.” She’s full of sass and curiosity, charging around the Hopewell streets, or cruising in a beat-up convertible. Lloyd, a Britisher working on her third accent in as many films, sparks up her scenes.
Sam lives with one Vietnam vet, her morose, sardonic uncle Emmett, and knows plenty of others: Emmett’s buddies Pete (Stephen Tobolowsky), a right-wing tattooed lecher; left-wing hothead Earl (Jim Beaver), and Tom (John Terry), a misty-eyed wounded romantic. Sam also has a boyfriend, Lonnie, local basketball hero and macho creep (Kevin Anderson) and grandparents, Mamaw and husband (Richard Hamilton), who may remind you a bit of Ma and Pa Kettle. Sam’s mother (Joan Allen) lives in the city. Urbanized, upwardly mobile, she’s left rusticity, and Sam, behind.
The movie is constructed like a detective story; it suggests dark depths beneath Hopewell’s apple-cheeked surface. Sam, intrigued by Emmett’s curious behavior, discovers a bundle of letters and photographs from her father and, suddenly, Vietnam and its meaning begin to obsess her--even causing her to ditch smug Lonnie and take up with misty-eyed vet Tom. If the Southeast Asian war was a “heart of darkness” for Coppola, here it’s the guilty town secret. Why does her uncle stay by himself, rail against injustice, howl in the rain? Why is Tom skittish about women? Why do Hopewell’s veterans seem ignored or set apart by the town? Most important, why did her father die and leave her?
Jewison is often at his best with comedies or musicals; his natural talent may not quite jibe with the low-key realism that’s a major strength of Mason’s book. He tends to lyricize the plot, punch up the humor, dig for moments of melodrama or high sentiment. Significantly, the best single performance in the film--Judith Ivey’s bawdy nurse, Anita--is a blatantly theatrical star-turn that eschews subtlety or surface naturalism. Anita, who is even deprived of a final scene to wrap up her character, seems almost too broad, too bravura. Yet, even more than the exemplary Emily Lloyd, she seems most in tune with Jewison.
“In Country” is seemingly loose, rambling, anecdotal. Yet, we’re always clear--too clear--about where everyone stands, including the film makers. (They’re good liberals who want to appeal to a heartland audience.) Each scene has a point; each character is usually being driven toward self-realization, as if by a shuttle bus. And sometimes there are comic scenes that seem too jovial, too cliched.
Jewison, whose direction exudes self-confidence, isn’t afraid of seeming corny, and this pays dividends in the wonderful moment when Pete and Earl, brawling at a vet’s party, suddenly see each other’s eyes, clasp hands and embrace. But Hopewell never really seems completely real. Bathed in honeyed light and a peach glace lusciousness caught by cinematographer Russell Boyd, the movie suggests the lacquered, idealized small towns of musicals such as “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Yet, in a way, none of this really matters. There’s a decency about this movie that’s almost palpable. It’s not trying to pump us up with false jingoism or the sins of the past. Jewison, a Canadian, probably approaches the entire subject with a mediatory mood. If his two best previous social dramas--”In the Heat of the Night” and “A Soldier’s Story”--were detective stories with racial themes, there’s one buried here too. These white Southern vets--somewhat like the black vets they must have fought with (but whom we mostly don’t see here) are a group apart, a group ostracized or discriminated against, carrying their own special bond of brotherhood and freight of pain.
“In Country” may not quite be the healing experience Jewison and his collaborators want it to be. But, though the extremity of Sam’s search makes her begin to seem like a Vietnam groupie, there’s a fable-like purity to the quest.
When Sam camps out, pores over her dad’s journal and envisions the war, this forced scene actually has a symbolic resonance. It suggests the collective dreams of Vietnam that have been coalescing now for a decade, mostly in the movies: Vietnam as tragic myth, as macho rite, as fantasy vindication, as swamp of horror. And it sets us up for the beautiful ending of “In Country” (MPAA rated R for sex and language), where Jewison masterfully tries to turn back toward the few unshakable realities. All the people that died there. All the people that mourn. The earth that swallowed up the bodies and blood. And the sky that covers them, both living and dead, forever.
A Warner Bros. presentation of a Richard Roth production. Producers Norman Jewison, Roth. Director Jewison. Script Frank Pierson, Cynthia Cidre. Music James Horner. Camera Russell Boyd. Editors Antony Gibbs, Lou Lombardo. Production design Jackson DeGovia. Art director John Jensen. Costume design Aggie Guerard Rogers. With Bruce Willis, Emily Lloyd, Joan Allen, Kevin Anderson, John Terry, Peggy Rea, Judith Ivey, Dan Jenkins, Stephen Tobolowsky.
Running time: 2 hours.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).
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