In his film directing debut, Sam Shepard forsakes the fevered elliptical prose flights of his plays, for a straightforward approach of surprising flatness and sentimentality that never gets airborne in this conventional tale of a Minnesota farm family coming to terms with its past and present in a time of accelerating change.
Bertrum (Charles Durning), a veteran of two wars and the railroad, is thrown from a cart by his rebellious runaway horse, and lands in the hospital obsessed with exacting revenge from the nag. His citified, unmarried pregnant daughter Kate (Jessica Lange) flies out from New York to comfort the curmudgeon in his crisis.
In what’s meant to be taken as a profound gesture of filial obeisance, Lange reluctantly agrees to assassinate the horse. This mystifies Lange’s slightly dotty mom (Ann Wedgeworth) and outrages her fiery farm-bound sister Rita (Tess Harper).
Adding to the emotional fireworks in this world without men is the post-pubescent defiance of Harper’s daughter Jilly (Patricia Arquette), who plays fast and loose with the local boys for amusement in this nowhere town.
This loving but fractious litle family is intended by Shepard to represent the dislocation of fundamental American values in the socially vertiginous 1980s.