If you are looking for an effective thriller, independent film The Fields is not stellar, but better than most of the humdrum fare one is used to, and often lots of fun. However, if you are looking to see an outstanding performance by a veteran actress at the top of her form, in this case Cloris Leachman, then The Fields is an absolute must see.
Ms. Leachman plays Gladys, the grandmother of a curious young boy named Steven (Joshua Ormond). Steven goes to stay with his grandmother and grandfather Hiney (Bev Appleton) while his parents work out their marital difficulties. (These difficulties came to a head when his father Barry (Faust Checho) pointed a rifle at mom Bonnie (Tara Reid) after she came home drunk one too many times.
The film is set in the seventies, and told mostly from Steven's point of view. The Manson murders are current news, and many of the locals are worried about the hippie menace, and there are a number of unsavory hippie types in the area, including one Eugene (Louis Morabito) who works at the milk farm, and may or may not dress up as a circus ringmaster and hide under Steven's bed from time to time. Whoever the culprit is, someone in the area starts to harass Gladys, Hiney and Steven soon after the boy's arrival: knocking on the doors and windows of the isolated farmhouse at night, throwing rocks through the windows, and even kidnapping Hiney's pet dogs. The ambiguity of who is doing this and why is a large part of the tension of the film, which is partly based on the real life experiences of writer Harrison Smith when he was a child.
At times the film reads like a fairy tale, and the viewer is often unsure if a scene is reality or the hyperactive imagination of Steven. The locations, such as a long abandoned amusement park and endless fields of corn, enhance this feeling, as do the bizarre experiences and family members that Steven encounters. The great aunt with cerebral palsy whose deformed children play games in the cellar that involve the slaughter of chickens is one good example of this. The film manages to maintain throughout a feeling of menace and tension, heightened and tweaked by the gonzo goings on. Unfortunately, the payoff at the end is a bit weak, and leaves the viewer with some doubts as to the point of it all.
However, the big draw to The Fields is not the thriller aspects or the plot, the draw is Cloris Leachman. In the extra material, it is noted that she took on this project even though there was plenty of higher paying jobs available to her. She was attracted to the character of Gladys, who is based on Harrison Smith's actual grandmother. And her characterization is compelling. Gladys is cranky and foul mouthed and loveable all at the same time, and resonates with the memories of any number of people one has met in their life. Leachman's performance is natural, effortless and true. She particularly shines in her interactions Bev Appleton who plays her husband of many years. The pair would feel right at home in any of a hundred country diners across rural America. Most of the other performances are good to excellent, with the exception of Tara Reid, who never seems to be able to reach the emotional levels necessary. (This is not exceptionally surprising.) Even young Joshua Ormond manages to pull out the requisite nuance and wonder to make his character work. But the real star and heart of this film is Leachman, and she doesn't hit a single false note. It's good to be reminded that she is a talented, serious actor in addition to her comic gifts, and that she started out in dramatic parts in films like Kiss Me Deadly
The Fields is not a perfect film. The story loses its way at times and there's not much of a denouement. It does provide plenty of thrills, and an enduringly creepy atmosphere, though. And of course, Cloris Leachman hits it dead on in an absolutely fantastic role. If for no other reason, see it because of her. Recommended.
Behind the Scenes: The Making of The Fields
Real Stories and Faces Behind the Film
Hey, No Funny Stuff
Ladies and Gentlemen, Cloris Leachman
The Fields Trailer
Breaking Glass Trailer