Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Farmer (1977) review

Gary Conway (Kyle Martin), Michael Dante (Johnny O), George Memmoli (Passini), Angel Tompkins (Betty), Timothy Scott (Weasel), Ken Renard (Gumshoe), John Popwell (Conners)
Directed by David Berlatsky

The Short Version: At first glance THE FARMER (1977) looks like any other 'Nam Vet Revenge movie; but to one's surprise, it swaps out Vietnam for a WWII veteran getting revenge on gangsters in the 1940s. With some truly inspired moments throughout, it's an overall odd mix of drama, violence, and a Hugo Montenegro score that sounds more of a fit in a cop show that only lasted half a season. We never see THE FARMER bring his crop in, but we do get a lot of brooding and blood squibs during the finale that comes equipped with a surprise twist. It's a different war but same narrative structure; just don't expect ROLLING THUNDER with THE FARMER.

At the end of WWII in 1945, Kyle Martin returns home to Georgia to take over his deceased father's farm. With money still owed on the land, Kyle finds it impossible to run the place between him and a loyal family friend named Gumshoe. The bank tries to persuade him to sell, otherwise they'll have to foreclose. One night a man wrecks his car near the isolated farm and Kyle and Gumshoe rescue him, saving his life. The man, a gambler named Johnny O, repays Kyle with $1,500. Still though, the money isn't enough to save the farm. Meanwhile, Johnny, who has mob connections, enrages a gangster named Passini over cheating him on a horse race bet. Blinding him with acid, Johnny seeks the help of the farmer in the hopes the decorated war vet will assassinate Passini and his men for blinding him. Offering Kyle $50,000 for the job, he needs time to think about it; that is till one of Passini's men rapes Kyle's girlfriend on his farm and sets fire to it. The money now meaningless, Kyle gets his weapons together to get revenge on Passini and his thugs.

There were numerous movies about disturbed 'Nam vets before and after Saigon fell into the hands of a brutal communist dictatorship. Unlike the slew of big budget movies in the 1980s about the war itself, the 1970s was the home of independently made films about vets trying to assimilate back into society. These ranged from serious drama to exploitation under the guise of selling a message. Strangely, THE FARMER isn't one of them; despite having a plot that could easily be mistaken for one. Instead of its main character returning home from Vietnam, he's a Silver Star decorated, WWII hero returning home to the quiet surroundings of his father's farmland... or so he thinks. 
Shooting on the independently made drama-gedy took place in late 1975. Approximately one year later, Columbia Pictures picked it up for distribution in the early months of 1977. Gary Conway (I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN; LAND OF THE GIANTS) not only stars in front of the camera but took a job behind it as producer on the movie. Reportedly, the film struggled for its financing and had four screenwriters over the course of its production. When it finally launched its theatrical offensive, reviews were scathing and the movie quickly disappeared.
More MY OLD MAN'S PLACE (1971) than ROLLING THUNDER (1977), THE FARMER spends an hour on the plight of the title cultivator before he plants a bunch of gangsters six feet under in the final 30+ minutes. The revenge is satisfying but it's not the gore-drenched retribution some reviewers have made it out to be. The film's re-release titles don't help matters by giving the impression it's more an exploitation movie than the heavier accent on drama that it really is.

The plot doesn't unfold the way you might think, either. War veteran Kyle Martin rescues a mob-connected gambler and, after receiving a lot of money for his good deed, becomes romantically entangled with Betty, his apparent courtesan (Angel Tompkins of PART 2: WALKING TALL). This was an easy set-up for betrayal that leads to a vendetta; and the resulting tragedy in that both Kyle and Johnny O have done each other a courtesy. But that's not what happens.

Instead, Johnny cheats on a horse race to piss off Passini, a mob boss he doesn't like. After Passini and his thugs pour acid in his eyes, Johnny wants revenge. So he asks Kyle, who's already helped him once, to take out Passini and his men; believing it to be a job that should come easy to an ex-soldier who saw a lot of death overseas. Kyle doesn't want to do the job but gets involved by happenstance when one of Passini's maggots (the aptly named Weasel) rapes Betty on his farm and kills Gumshoe (a childhood friend of the family) in the process. The enmity between Kyle and the mob begins right after. 
There would have possibly been more of an emotional impact had the conflict revolved mostly around Kyle and Johnny O; especially since they were sharing the same woman. Johnny could have been the mafioso instead of Passini. Minimal as it is, there's an established bond between them. Since nothing happens to build up to it, the revenge feels tacked on; and having four writers probably didn't help much. This isn't necessarily to the film's detriment, it's just pointing out the movie unfolds in an unusual manner. 
Additionally, there's a parallel subtext that may not be immediately noticeable, but is one of the best things about Berlatsky's movie. 

Outside of Kyle's struggle to keep his family farm, the characters aren't all that well developed. Without saying too much, the movie does explore the themes of loyalty and sacrifice, and how individual allegiance to duty can't be broken with money. There are two acts of violence where this comes into play. One of these is when Kyle needs funds to save his farm. Conflicted about going from a soldier to a hitman for a $50,000 payout to solve his homestead problems, the money loses all meaning once Betty is violated on his own property that is then razed. The other strand of loyalty and sense of duty comes during the coda, and the film's strongest sequence as it links to an early moment in the movie.

There's some nuances surrounding Conway's character that at least add some extra dimension to him. His Silver Star is a symbol of his valor on the battlefield. But once the war is over, and he must integrate back into society again, his duty means little in the rude awakening of reality that settles in. Kyle puts his medal on the scarecrow out in the muddy field. He also wears sunglasses through much of the movie that conceal his eyes, but not his often cold, emotionless face.

As was tradition with 70s movies, there's two songs by Gene Clark that tell the story through music; 'American Dreamer' and 'Outside the Law'. Both are quite soulful, somewhat stirring, and somber with the countryside twang and instrumentation. Both tunes were first heard on the 1971 documentary, AMERICAN DREAMER; about Dennis Hopper making his obscure sophomore directing gig, THE LAST MOVIE (1971).

THE FARMER's director, David Berlatsky, was the editor of Hopper's THE LAST MOVIE. His tale of a WWII vet trying to make a living with a family farm was his first and last movie as a director. Principally an editor, Berlatsky performed cutting duties on indy efforts like THE JESUS TRIP (1971), TV terror like A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH (1973), and big studio productions like PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973) and THE DEEP (1977).

There are a handful of artistic touches and directorial flourishes that stand out from other areas where it feels like there may have been two different visions for what this movie was supposed to be. There are two extraordinary editing dissolves done by the director. One occurs during the opening credits with Conway walking all night and into the early morning hours--some of it in slow motion with multiple shots transitioning into one another as Conway's character makes his way over various terrain. Another is a love scene between Conway and Angel Tompkins with multiple dissolves going on at once. Lots of movies use dissolves but here their use is unique, and it's apparent the filmmakers were trying to make something other than a cheap exploitation quickie.
Making the time period post-WWII is a surprise; and that sprawling landscape and sunrise before the title appears sets the tone that never quite matches those golden rays promising a new day if not a better movie. 
A DVD/Blu-ray release of THE FARMER has been teased for well over a decade now. It's obscurity and lack of availability drove its interest among collectors. As it is, THE FARMER is a once obscure curio that's not a long lost classic, but a flawed drama with some rewarding qualities: nice back-country scenery, an interesting lead character, brutal violence in the last half, and a surprising twist in the tail that certainly makes this war-torn gardener's plight worth your time.

This review is representative of the Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray. Specs and Extras: HD scan from the original negative;1080p 1.78:1; music only track; original trailer in HD; trailers; running time: 01:37:56.
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