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USA 1988
Directed by
Sam Shepard
89 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Far North

Perhaps as this was his first directorial role we can cut Sam Shepard some slack but as he also wrote the screenplay the ball of blame for this embarrasingly sentimental, inconsequential film bounces right back into his court.

Far North is supposed to be an empathetic portrait of dying rural America (the film was shot in Duluth, Minnesota, the birthplace of Bob Dylan and it is very clear why, like Kate in Shepard’s film, the so-called "voice of his generation" shot through to NYC as soon as he was able). What it is in fact is a long-winded yarn about some bloated old fart (Charles Durning) obsessed with avenging himself on an unfortunate horse. Why Shepard, a highly regarded playwright and sometime actor, couldn’t see that his script, clearly under the influence of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, was a dud, if not before then while making it, is a mystery.

Charles Durning plays Bertrum, the paterfamilias of a small farming family. His wife (Ann Wedgeworth) has early dementia, his brother (Donald Moffat) is an alcoholic (he is also conveniently in the same hospital as Bert, across the corridor in fact), his unmarried daughter Rita (Tess Harper) lives at home with her wildcat teenage daughter (Patricia Arquette) and his other daughter (Jessica Lange), pregnant and also unmarried, has left home for life in the Big Apple. As the film gets underway she has returned home after ol’ Bert has been thrown from his hay wagon by Mal, an apparently vindictive horse. Bert want Kate to shoot the beast and the tedious narrative is concerned with will Kate do the deed or not.

Whilst his script putters along with little to no focal point Shepard is out of his depth as a director seeming unable to establish a consistent tone for his film. Durning is usually an asset to any movie he is in but here it is impossible to tell if Shepard regards him as an endearing buffoon or a petty tyrant. Wedgeworth appears sometimes to be senile and at others, quite lucid (we don’t really need a fantasy scene set around the kitchen table, an obvious signifier of the domestic surety now gone).  And what he puts Arquette through doesn’t bear repeating. Lange has the charisma to pull the film together when she is onscreen but it is frustrating to see her dutifully serve up such lame material.

FYI: Shepard directed only one other film, fortunately with more success, Silent Tongue in 1993.  Shepard  and Lange (they were an item since working together on Frances,1982) had made a better crack at this kind of material with Country,1984. Shepard was for a while a member of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-'70s.

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