A Thousand Acres

on September 19, 1997 by Christine James
With its focus on letting go of the past to embrace the future, this adaptation of Jane Smiley's novel is thematically similar to director Jocelyn Moorhouse's last film, "How to Make an American Quilt." Both are chockful of characters with tragic histories who must release their anger and wistfulness if they are to move on. And some do with more success than others.
"A Thousand Acres" additionally addresses the role of greed in tying people to situations that ultimately make them more miserable than the material gain could possibly be worth. In this case, the prize in question is a thousand acres of fertile land, owned by third-generation superfarmer Larry Cook (Jason Robards), a man whose well-respected position in the community belies his often cruel, erratic behavior toward his family.
Larry announces he will retire and split his beloved land among his three daughters, Ginny (Jessica Lange), Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But he promptly shuts Caroline out of the deal when she inadvertently bruises the mercurial old man's feelings. And when Ginny, Rose and their husbands begin making plans as to how they will run the farm, the controlling Larry soon becomes resentful and bitter. He winds up teaming with Caroline to sue Ginny and Rose to get the farm back.
Ginny and Rose have more to contend with than that problem, including bad marriages and reemerging memories of the abuses they endured as children. Now why, one might ask, would they stay on the farm and take care of their horrible father all these years later, instead of packing up long ago and moving on to a new life? The answer seems to be both a confused sense of duty and a desire for "payment" for all they've endured, namely the millions of dollars in land.
This very heavy drama draws realistically complex characters and effectively shows how detrimental it can be to cling to the past and spend your time hating and blaming. Realism is maintained by resisting the urge to indulge in pat comeuppances and epiphanal revelations. Instead of sewing everything up neatly, the film presents a lot of unresolved emotional conflict and no easy answers as to what's right. How do you let go of a lifetime's worth of pain and anguish when the perpetrator doesn't even believe he's done anything wrong? "A Thousand Acres" offers much to ponder and excellent, well-rounded performances by Lange, Pfeiffer and Robards. Starring Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Written by Laura Jones. Produced by Marc Abraham, Steve Golin, Lynn Arost, Kate Guinzburg and Sigurjon Sighvatsson. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated R for some strong sexual language. Running time: 106 min
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