In Country

August 17, 2012

The central character of In Country is Samantha (played by Emily Lloyd), a restless teenager who’s bursting at the seams in her small Kentucky hometown. She lives with her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis), a Vietnam vet who has withdrawn from society.

Emmett’s no wild-eyed crazy; he’s just “mentally alienated,” according to his saucy niece. In the course of the movie, she comes to understand a bit more about his memories when she finds letters from her own father, who was killed in Vietnam before she was even born.

This is the core of the story, but the film also ranges over Samantha’s strained relationship with her mother (Joan Allen), who lives in another part of the state, her ho-hum feelings about her boyfriend (Kevin Anderson), whose neck is slightly red, and her concern over her best friend, who may be pregnant.

There’s nothing wrong with the film being rangy, but director Norman Jewison isn’t capable of covering that much ground. He’s barely able to make the uncle-niece relationship convincing, and it should be the heart of the movie, as Emmett is the surrogate for Samantha’s lost father. But Jewison’s notion of how to make this compelling is to stage a family argument during a thunderstorm, with loud cracks punctuating the conversation.

In his previous film, Moonstruck, Jewison had a delightful screenplay and he served it adequately. Here, the script (based on a book by Bobbi Ann Mason) has real possibilities, and some wonderful characters; Emmett’s vet buddies, for instance, are refreshingly free from caricature, and a doctor who sometimes provides companionship for Emmett is a funny character (and well played by Judith Ivey). But Jewison doesn’t have enough time to give to these people, and they get lost.

The story’s raggedness comes together in the finale at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that once-maligned black slab that has become such a potent emotional touchstone. The tear-jerking ending, undeniably effective, felt manipulative to me. The memorial is such a powerful symbol, but is it supposed to cure all the characters’ problems?

Bruce Willis sheds his slick “Moonlighting” persona for the image-changing role of Emmett, and he plays the haunted vet with admirable restraint. Still there’s very little character for him to play, and Willis isn’t yet actor enough to suggest the unspoken subtleties of such a man. Emily Lloyd, who made a smashing debut in the English film Wish You Were Here, is an amazing raw talent whose emotions riot over hers expressive face. Like Willis, she doesn’t have enough to build a character with, and the film stays on a superficial level, with a walloping gut-punch at the end.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Willis in “Moonlighting.” This was stretching too hard to be a change of pace, so he ended up looking a little forced, but it was an early indication of his future willingness to take different kinds of roles in different kinds of projects. Emily Lloyd has had her share of life problems, apparently, a real shame for anybody with a memory of Wish You Were Here.