Referred to as a “coming of age” film, it is really a “coming to grips” film. In Country is the story of how the Vietnam War tore a hole in a community and several generations of a family.
Directed with sensitivity and a gentle hand, Norman Jewison’s film is a journey of healing and moving onward.
Emily Lloyd plays Samantha Hughes, who is graduating from high school and chooses this moment to get to know the father she never met who was killed in Vietnam. She finds letters her dad sent from Vietnam, and that is her pathway into who he was and what he thought about. This makes him more than a photo or a name. Sam also lives with her uncle, Emmitt Smith, played with deep emotional scars by Bruce Willis.
Her mother, played by a young Joan Allen, has remarried and moved on. She wants Sam to come live with her and go to college. Sam’s grandmother Mamaw, played by the sweet and earnest Peggy Rea, has carried on stoically but never truly grieved for the death of her son.
You might think this film is a real downer, it is painful in places, but it takes you into the heart of these people. This town in Kentucky could be anywhere in the country. Boys who went to war, some didn’t come back, and many who did were wounded for life.
Sam’s curiosity about her father stirs the lives left without him. As she develops a sense of him, her uncle and grandmother gain a strength to confront the pain inside of them by visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.
If you’ve been to the Memorial, you understand that it is an incredible place. There is a sort of magic in seeing, and touching the names on the wall. There is a connection that is made.
When I was there is was a sunny day, warm but not hot, no wind, just very peaceful. Watching people walk along the wall, searching for the name of a loved one, friend, or fellow soldier, was an experience. With the help of volunteers who had a map of the names on each panel, eventually, you found the name or names. Sometimes with the assistance of a ladder, people climbed to the name, running their fingers across the letters, touching that person again. Some used a pencil and paper to trace over the raised letters. Others placed a note or object at the base of the wall. May shed tears, some embraced, all were overcome by the reverence of the experience.
In the film, Sam, Emmitt and Mamaw visit the wall. Dwayne’s name is high up on the wall, so they use a ladder to reach his name. Even Mamaw climbs the ladder, though she is afraid someone might be able to look up her dress. Emmitt places a medal at the wall.
It doesn’t erase the loss, but the trip allowed them to have a final visit with Dwayne and move through the pain. Until then, Dwayne was like a ghost, a spirit that haunted their thoughts. While Mamaw and Emmitt could lay him to rest, Sam was able to read her dad’s letters, learn about the man he was, and know that he couldn’t wait to leave Vietnam and see his young daughter.
In understanding about her dad and his experience, she understood a bit more about herself, as she stood at the crossroads of her future.
Emily Lloyd brought a maturity to the character, unusual for such a young woman. She seemed more like her mother’s sister than her daughter.
Bruce Willis turned in one of his better performances, toning down his normal characteristics to play a vulnerable but mannered man with no real direction in life.
Patricia Richardson, Judith Ivey and Stephen Tobolowski round out the superb cast.
Norman Jewison, who directed such films as Fiddler on the Roof, The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck, brought his vast storytelling skills to what was a small-budget, but deeply moving film.