By Peter Travers
November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

Jessica Lange again. This time she is the daughter of a bullying old coot, played with bull to spare by Charles fuming. Pop demands daughter avenge him by shooting the horse that overturned his wagon and landed him in a hospital. In a nearby room Lange’s drunken uncle, Donald Moffat, sits and stews. While the men rail impotently against a world “thick with women,” the family ranch in northern Minnesota is left in the less than capable hands of Lange’s dotty mother (Ann Wedgeworth), her confused sister (Tess Harper), the sister’s sex-obsessed daughter (Patricia Arquette) and a cranky grandma (Nina Draxten) about to celebrate her 100th birthday. No one calls Willard Scott. Too bad, that might have livened things up. Instead the unmarried Lange, just in from New York, shows up with the glum news that she’s newly pregnant. Sensing her condition, Durning sneers, “Pregnant women have this smell they give off.” The line comes from Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer prizewinning playwright who wrote and directed (it’s his feature debut) the film as a tribute to born-and-bred Minnesotan Lange. (Her father and an uncle appear in bit parts.) Shepard has credited Lange, who is the mother of two of his children, with his newfound “vulnerability.” He didn’t say who should take the rap for the slow, surreal, thuddingly symbolic rat’s nest of a movie he made on his beloved’s home turf. While the women keep asking what happened to all the men, the real missing person is the Sam Shepard who extended the boundaries of the theater with such groundbreaking plays as Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class. The new, vulnerable Shepard—actor in Hollywood drivel (Baby Boom) and creator of a long, self-indulgent play (A Lie of the Mind)—is hardly the new, improved Shepard. The arid, academic Far North indicates it’s high time his public called him on it. (PG-13)