In Country: It’s the Destination, Not the Journey

Norman Jewison’s In Country (1989) is an adaptation of the 1985 novel by Bobbie Ann Mason, about a high school graduate named Samantha Hughes who is desperate to understand her father Dwayne, who was killed in Vietnam. I loved the book enough to dare violate my usual rule: “If you liked the book, never watch the movie.”

For the first ninety minutes of the movie I seethed because of my memories of the book. So let me get my gripes out of the way first. The characters, every last one of them, are far less likable than they were in the book. The novel’s Sam Hughes is determined and inquisitive. As portrayed by Emily Lloyd in this movie, she’s impulsive and annoying. In the book her boyfriend Lonnie is that particular type of small-town social climber who can probably parlay his basketball prowess into a lifetime of free drinks at the Elks Club. In the movie, he’s an aggressive white-trash type who drives a beat-up El Camino. Sam and her uncle Emmett travel to Washington DC with the wrong grandparent in the movie (it should be her mother’s mother, not her father’s mother; the book makes clear that Sam barely knows her father’s family).

Most annoyingly of all, in the book Sam only truly begins to connect with her father when her mother tells her that there are some letters from him somewhere among her belongings, which she has left behind in the house Sam shares with Emmett (her mom’s brother). This happens about two-thirds of the way through the novel and is marked by a change in tone and style: Mason keeps everything short, sweet, and simple up to that point, then absolutely luxuriates in that scene where Sam finally reads what her father wrote back to her mother. From that point on the writing remains rich and detailed. As Sam comes closer to the truth about her father’s life and death, everything gets more vivid.

In the movie Sam accidentally finds the letters in the first fifteen minutes. Grrrr.

Sam finding the letters leads to her suddenly wanting and needing to know everything she can. She learns from her mother that her father’s parents have his old diaries from Vietnam. Sam reads them, learns that her father killed a Viet Cong soldier and said “it was easier than I thought,” then gets furious as she learns he didn’t live up to the mental image she had of him. How could he? Her last, desperate attempt to reconcile her image of him with the reality of him leads her to make a well-planned trip to spend the night in a nearby swamp. She knows he was afraid in Vietnam. She wants to feel some of what he felt. The novel makes all of this clear.

In the movie, well, she just kinda goes out there. Again: Grrrr.

But then … at that ninety-minute mark, something happens that changed my mood. If you read my preview, you know that Emmett is played by Bruce Willis, and you probably gathered that I’m not his biggest fan. I don’t hate him, I just think he keeps playing the same characters. Emmett goes out to find Sam and confronts her about how she can never really know what her father — or any other solider — went through in Vietnam. Emmett lets it slip that he has killed, too, remorselessly because of all of his buddies who died over there. And then he had to come home and see people living utterly mundane lives, oblivious to what he went through, and that’s why he is the way he is. He fears nothing quite as much as the fact that he thinks he’ll never be okay and never really be able to rejoin the world. Sam’s father felt the same way, according to his letters — and he never did rejoin it.

It is absolutely the best acting I have ever seen Bruce Willis do. He didn’t ruin this movie; he saved it.

Immediately after the swamp scene, in both the movie and the novel, Sam, her grandmother, and Emmett travel to Washington DC to see her father’s name on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. The only difference is that the novel treats the road trip with much more detail and splits it as a framing device between the beginning and end of the story. There is yet another difference between the novel and the movie, but this time it’s in the movie’s favor. Sam in the novel finds her own name (sort of) on the wall, and this establishes that the Vietnam story is the story of every American. Under different circumstances it could have been any one of us.

In the movie, she doesn’t find her name. All that happens is that everyone just lets go and lets it all out, in a scene that is as beautiful and moving as the rest of the movie was meandering and frustrating. But in a lot of ways, the book was like that too: red herrings and feints all over the place as you wondered what was going to come of this story, or even what sort of story it was, until it all came together. Mason split the car trip into two pieces so that the two most intense scenes, the swamp and the memorial, would flow into each other. Jewison (or, more likely, his screenwriters) simply took out the bulk of the road trip to accomplish the same thing. I can’t fault either choice.

Willis, like I said, was great in this movie. Emily Lloyd’s performance was harder to enjoy. Sometimes she was very good, sometimes she played the mature-beyond-her-years Sam as though she were eleven years old instead of seventeen. Her accent was a little overdone (the film is set in western Kentucky and was filmed in Mason’s hometown of Mayfield; Lloyd’s accent has too much drawl in it, but the actor who does her father’s voice nailed it) and her running is, well, awkward would be one way to put it. But she was at least believable as a young woman being held back by “daddy issues.”

There were many other great performances as well, most particularly a scene involving a fight between Jim Beaver and Stephen “That Guy Who is in Every Movie” Tobolowsky. They were both stellar as veterans whose experiences affected their personalities in two very different ways. And because this film is from 1989, there are a few appearances by actors who would go on to do other things: I wanted to warn Sam’s friend Dawn to be careful about licking envelopes, for instance, and if Tobolowsky’s character’s wife ever leaves him, she ought not marry that guy from Detroit, even if he does have his own TV show.

So now you’re wondering: did I actually like this movie? At first I didn’t. (If I hadn’t read the book I might not have felt that way, but I probably would have been bored.) And when the swamp scene fell out of the clear blue sky with no motivation for Sam to do what she was doing, I was ready to turn it off. But the last twenty-five minutes of the movie were a delight, deeply moving without being overwrought or in any way unbelievable. In fact, I liked the movie’s ending more than I liked the book’s ending, because it more clearly communicated that Sam was at peace and Emmett might finally be able to move on. That scene was filmed with a respectfulness that borders on piety.

Thus, here’s how I think you should experience In Country: Read the book first, but stop when Emmett shows up in the swamp. Start watching the movie at about the ninety-minute mark. You’ll get the best possible version of a story about thoroughly ordinary people in Anytown, U.S.A., who had to face the horrors of Vietnam, only some of which actually happened during the war. But if that’s too complicated for you, please know that I do recommend this movie after all.

It’s funny. The book was published in 1985 and the movie came out in 1989. That’s hardly an eternity in Hollywood time, but a lot happened in those four years. In 1985 it was possible to suggest that the average American didn’t care about Vietnam veterans or understand their experiences. In 1989, after Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, Rambo, Missing In Action, Tour of Duty, China Beach, and some movies and TV shows I’ve certainly forgotten about, it’s hard to imagine anyone didn’t understand. So the movie was superfluous, in a sense, and maybe that’s what Bobbie Ann Mason was hoping would happen.

How I watched the movie: As of September 2020, it was streamable on Amazon Prime for $1.99. It’s worth at least that much.

Next week: Speaking of Seinfeld, how about a movie that sounds like something Jerry and Elaine would stand in line to see? And would you like a little irony with it?

(The lead photo is mine, taken October 12, 1995 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It is the best picture I have ever taken, or ever will.)

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