This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"It's been frustrating not directing my own material. It's much more satisfying this way because there's no middle man. I can make all of my own mistakes and go through A to Z myself." Thus speaks Sam Shepard in a press release for "Far North," the first of his screenplays that he has directed himself. And he speaks the truth. Not only can he make all of his own mistakes, but he does, and now he must decide for himself if it was really more satisfying. "Far North" is a disorganized, undisciplined, rambling, pointless exercise in undigested material, and you can't blame the actors, the technicians or the middle men. This movie fails at the level of writing and direction.
That is a shocking statement to have to make, because Shepard is a great playwright and a good screenwriter who has not produced anything remotely this half-baked elsewhere in his career. Perhaps he directed "Far North" himself because no other director was interested.
What he might have heard, had he solicited the advice of an experienced filmmaker, was that he had no narrative line from beginning to end, no clearly defined mission for his characters and no urgent reason for his story to be told. It is a meandering, episodic series of chapters in the history of a family that needs professional help, urgently.
"Far North" opens with Bertrum (Charles Durning), the patriarch of a Minnesota family, being thrown by a runaway horse. Laid up in the hospital in desperate condition, he is visited by his daughter Kate (Jessica Lange), who has come back from the big city to be at his side. Durning has one favor to ask of her: He wants her to shoot the damn horse. He hates that horse. That horse was gunning for him. It deliberately threw him. The horse must die. Durning, so wrapped in bandages that he is almost invisible, brings a comic energy to this scene, which gets the movie off to a promising start. But almost immediately we discover that the film is not going to be comedy, tragedy, history, romance, pastoral elegy, or anything else in particular - just a disjointed series of events that are separated by a system of rapidly shifting reality levels.