A Thousand Acres

'A Thousand Acres' -- starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh -- X-rays Jane Smiley's novel to reveal its soap-opera skeleton.

Published October 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I WASN'T KNOCKED OUT by Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 novel "A Thousand Acres." For one thing, the book's "dark secret" seemed utterly implausible. I just didn't believe that the book's protagonist and narrator, a 37-year-old Iowa farm wife named Ginny, could have completely repressed the fact that her father had sex with her when she was 15 years old, night after night, for a year. For True Believers in "Repressed Memory Syndrome," this might sound like gospel: I found it melodramatic and bogus. Furthermore, the sensitive-unto-death narrative voice was dissonant and grating: Ginny came across as too intelligent and self-aware to be as clueless and numb as she was supposed to be.

Despite these major flaws, however, Smiley's au courant revisiting of "King Lear" had its virtues: keen insights into family dynamics, a stately, beautifully controlled pace and a weirdly chipper, let's-do-the-dishes-everybody quality that only heightened the ominous sound of fatal machinery grinding away beneath the banal surface of Happy, Happy American life. Unfortunately, these literary achievements -- created by tone and nuance as well as the sheer hypnotic effect of time spent turning the pages -- are not easily captured by film. The movie fails to convey any of the book's strengths -- and it magnifies its shortcomings into bathetic clichis.

"A Thousand Acres" may simply be one of those books that can't be made into anything but a plot-driven movie-of-the-week. Although the first half hour is really dreadful, with its hokey plot-establishing voice-over and choppy, melodramatic action, it's not easy to imagine how director Jocelyn Moorhouse and screenwriter Laura Jones could have better compressed all the necessary story elements. But there's no forgiving their bowdlerizing of Smiley's slo-mo psychological horror show, giving it a kinda-upbeat ending and omitting the inconvenient fact that the narrator tries to kill her sister. Above all, they play it too safe. Perhaps if they had added new material, approached Smiley's story from different directions, they could have made a film that would have been truer to the spirit, if not the letter, of her book. Ploddingly literal, "A Thousand Acres" is basically a star vehicle that relies on superior acting to redeem it. It does have superior acting, but that's not nearly enough.

The story involves a tyrannical old patriarch, Larry Cook (Jason Robards, whose skills are not really utilized), who, apparently forgetting the unpleasant fate that befell Lear, decides to give his farm away to his three daughters -- Ginny (Jessica Lange), Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Larry -- Lear; Ginny -- Goneril; Rose -- Regan; Caroline -- Cordelia. Get it? But Smiley turns that phallocentric old fable on its politically incorrect head: Instead of being hounded to madness and despair by evil children, this patriarch is the evil one, a rigid, remorseless old man who, we learn, seduced not just Ginny but Rose, too. And he doesn't need to be driven to madness: He goes pretty much off the deep end, for reasons that are never explained, right after he gives away his property.

Ginny and Rose, like their horrific Shakespearean namesakes, agree with his decision; Caroline, their younger sister, doesn't. Despite their acquiescence, Larry turns on them. In high rage, he runs out into a storm after cursing his older daughters, who have done nothing more objectionable than try to restrain his drunken driving. Things degenerate from there.

The relationship between Ginny and her sister Rose is the heart of the film and the book. Emotionally numbed by her father's physical and sexual abuse, Ginny has settled for a passionless marriage to a decent but plodding and conventional man, Ty (Keith Carradine); her put-on-hold heart is stirred by a handsome neighbor, Jess (Colin Firth). Jessica Lange captures Ginny's bewildered, sweet, resilient-yet-already-defeated personality in a wonderfully nuanced performance. Few other actors are able to convey simultaneous levels of knowing and feeling like Lange. Like an archaeologist digging through layers of deception, she reveals Ginny's increasing self-awareness -- while refusing to make that self-awareness redemptive. There's a slow tough-mindedness to Lange's Ginny that is perfectly Midwestern. (The other characters seem just a bit too glossy and devoid of cowshit to have walked off an Iowa farm.)

If Ginny has decided to sleepwalk hopefully through life, Rose has decided to go out in a blaze of icy, conscious rage. She knows exactly what her father did to her and she is determined to get even (although it is never satisfactorily explained why Rose seems to be just getting mad at age 35). Battling with her husband, Pete, ordering her daughters around, she's a creature with one shiny, implacable purpose. Pfeiffer only has to hit one note, but she hits it really well. She looks transcendentally pissed off all the time.

Insofar as the film has a central conflict, it is between the simple but myopic kindness that Ginny represents and Rose's righteous but hate-filled demand for justice. It's an interesting tension, but the film never allows us to savor its dark ambiguities. One cataclysmic event after the other keeps happening -- suicides, lawsuits, flashbacks, family ruptures, courtroom confrontations, divorces -- preventing us from feeling the slow earthquake in Ginny, or the face-off between her way of living in the world and Rose's.

Smiley's novel is filled with an unnecessary amount of family horror -- she could have achieved the same artistic effects without sprinkling on the Gothic MSG. But the interiority of the novel form allows us to look away from the lurid plot, to follow the subtler movement of Ginny's mind. Moorhouse halfheartedly tries to tell the story from Ginny's point of view, but she keeps going back to the external, epic vision. Instead of feeling like an epic, however, "A Thousand Acres" feels like a soap opera -- an impression not lessened by the soupy this-is-a-sad-scene music and the treacly voice-over that keeps telling us what just happened -- "going to court had divided us from each other." If Shakespeare spun a few times when Smiley's novel came out, he must be rotating like an eggbeater now.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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