On this farm in Iowa, the Ivy family are getting by though recognise times are not getting any easier in Ronald Reagan's America for small business owners like themselves. But they don't dwell on this issue, for there is the crop to be gathered, which they do with their farming machinery and very little help, having to commit to the work on their own, with father Gil (Sam Shepard) assisted by his wife Jewell (Jessica Lange), his teenage son Carlisle (Levi L. Knebel) and his father-in-law Otis (Wilford Brimley). However, as if in a foretaste of the troubles to come, when they are out in the fields one night completing the day's work of collecting the grain, a twister appears and almost kills Carlisle...
Yet it is not so much the natural disasters that threaten the Ivys and many more like them, but the state of their finances. This was the second movie to be released by Disney's Touchstone division, which would soon be synonymous with feelgood comedies and light, popular drama; neither could describe Country, which if anything harkened back to the social commentary efforts of the nineteen-thirties and forties. More than one person noted how this was essentially along the same lines as the John Ford adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, it was supporting the farming folk who were struggling in the face of poor management from the authorities and banks.
If this had been made in the next century, it would have been those banks which would bear the brunt of the criticism, since it was them making enormous profits betting against people they lent to losing everything in the process, but while there was an element of that here, it was still in its nascent form as far as financial scandals went - though you could assuredly tell it was on its way, thanks to William D. Wittliff's canny and well-researched screenplay. The director was Richard Pearce, a cinematographer who turned his hand to helming a handful of features and more often, television projects. This was his highest profile piece, due to Lange's eventual Oscar nomination.
Nevertheless, as it does not particularly slot into the popular view of eighties Hollywood - this was no Ghostbusters or Back to the Future - Country has been rather neglected as time has worn on, ironically perhaps in light of how perilous the housing market became, not to mention people across the globe simply being unable to pay their bills after the banks and governments encouraged them to borrow money circumstances would see them hopelessly out of their depth when it came to paying the money back. This is what the Ivy clan find themselves at a loss about, thanks to the Federal Housing Association, boosted by Reaganomics, making them a supposedly can't lose offer to take a loan with them, then the price of the farm's output plummets shortly after and disaster follows. Although Pearce could have turned this into a slice of sentimentality, aiming for the audience's tear ducts and heartstrings, that's not exactly what his style turned out to be.
He preferred a harsh, even bleak, tone that did not so much provoke moving moments no matter how sympathetic you were to the characters (and it is not only the Ivys who are suffering, by any means), but instead instilled a palpable dread. You can feel the desperation emanating from the screen, and as the story progresses a sense of "there but for the grace of God go we" was hard to ignore, which did not make for a comfortable watch. Lange and Shepard were excellent as the couple who are doing their best to keep going without facing up to the dire straits they have found themselves in (they refuse to discuss their problems with their scared children), and you could see why Lange especially was much-admired in a role that could have been a cliché, but is rendered with painful authenticity as the family turns on itself when it cannot cope. Excellent too was veteran Westerns actor Matt Clark as the bank representative disgusted with what he is being asked to do. There were no easy answers, and even the "happy" ending felt like a stay of execution, but though not an easy watch, this was necessary. Music by Charles Gross (very eighties, for better or worse).