Some novels make good films. Some novels don't. One good predictor of whether a novel will make a good film is how much the novel depends on the inward lives of its characters. David Copperfield, full of incident and activity, could make a good film. So could Gone With the Wind, or The Hunt for Red October, or Taipan. (As the last example shows, just because it could make a good film doesn't mean it will.) Ulysses, in which the inward voice of the author and the details of the central character make the trivial heroic, probably could not make a good film. Neither would Catcher in the Rye, The Sound and the Fury, or Alice Adams. (Again, the latter example shows that there are exceptions.) In Country was obviously based on a very interior novel. Things happen, but most of them aren't terribly dramatic. So expecting the film to be completely successful is asking too much. What's heartening about In Country is that parts of it work very well.
In Country concerns a Kentucky girl who has just graduated from high school. Gradually, her father, who died in Vietnam, comes to be more and more important in her life. She must undergo a difficult, painful growth before finding the right place in her heart for him. At the same time, her uncle, an embittered veteran, wastes his life because he cannot escape the pain of his experiences. I'll bet this read very, very well. It films only moderately well, and only because some very talented people have done superb work.
Foremost is Emily Lloyd, as the girl. Lloyd, an English actress whose first film, Wish You Were Here, demonstrated her ample promise, here succeeds in an entirely different type of part. Working behind a flawless Kentucky accent (at least to my untutored ear), she portrays a nice, ordinary girl who finds that her normalcy is undermined by her father's experiences in Vietnam, even though she never met him. Lloyd ably shapes the character of a typical American teenager discovering that there is more to the world than her first car, her boyfriend, and going to the shopping mall.
Bruce Willis does a nice job as her Uncle Emmett. Willis was a bold choice, since his previous film roles do not suggest depth. However, he willingly buries himself in the character. No wiseacre smirks at the camera, no smugly hip attitudes, just an honest and successful attempt to build a character around his gifts. His performance demonstrates that he is an actor with more use than carrying Die Hard II. Unfortunately, the combination of performance, script, and direction fail to lift Emmett above the role of plot functionary. He has reality, but he lives in the background.
Any problems with In Country have nothing to do with the acting. The problems are in the script, and, before that, probably in the whole idea of making a film from the book. In Country is filled with modern novelistic digressions. It perpetually wanders from its central theme. In the novel, these digressions were probably seamlessly integrated into the experiences of the central character, richening the reader's understanding of her growth. Writers Frank Pierson and Cynthia Cidre and director Norman Jewison fail to blend them into the story. They are drags on the film, which, around the hour-and-a-half mark, begins to feel drawn out.
Fortunately, Pierson, Cidre, and Jewison are able to finish very strong. Bobbie Ann Mason's novel gave them one perfect cinematic scene to work with, and they make that sequence play extremely well. The final scenes are highly moving, and redeem the slowness of the earlier film.
Jewison has plenty of good cinematic credits, including literary adaptations, such as In the Heat of the Night. He does well with In Country, but there are two potential problems with his choice as a director. First, he is Canadian, and the heart of the story is how the Vietnam War has affected even those Americans who weren't born at the time. Second, it is a girl's story, not a boy's. Jewison manages to imagine his way past the first problem, but not entirely past the second. In Country seems an authentically American experience, but not completely a female one. We've seen a lot of films in the last ten years that sensitively present boys' stories, but not nearly as many that have a girl as the central character. Part of the reason is that most writers and directors are male. They identify with the male experience, and understand it. To make a good film about a woman, they must rely on imagination, always in short supply in Hollywood. Jewison successfully imagines himself a U.S. citizen, but not a young woman. As a result, the film looks at its central character from outside, despite the fact that the story is presented through her eyes. That Lloyd's character is not totally a cipher is due to her talent, and, perhaps, the contribution of Cynthia Cidre to the script. Jewison must also bear primary responsibility for the lugubrious pacing of In Country.
The supporting cast is good, with Peggy Rea, as Lloyd's grandmother, a standout. Judith Ivey also does well with relatively few scenes, playing Emmett's old girlfriend who wants him back. Kevin Anderson mostly drives a car in a somewhat dispensable role as Lloyd's boyfriend.
The technical credits are high-quality Hollywood professionalism, which is the best film professionalism in the world. Not brilliant, not inspired, but very competent and well executed. James Horner's rather routine score fills a similar bill, supplemented by several rock songs, especially an overused and somewhat inappropriate Bruce Springsteen number. No one in this film is any hotter than a low smouldering, much less on fire.
In Country is another of those praiseworthy Hollywood films. Everyone had good intentions, everyone did a good job, some people even did a great job. But it is only moderately successful, none the less, with none of the snap and heat of a really strong film. The ending is so surefire and so well executed that it overcomes many of the rather routine aspects of the rest of the film. It makes the film worth seeing, especially when coupled with Emily Lloyd's performance.
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