Being “Country Strong”
Country Strong hasn’t been taken seriously by film critics. I’m not going to review what they’ve said or speculate on why they said it. I’m just going to explain why I enjoyed this very thoughtful film.
The four major characters—two men and two women–are all extremely attractive. The women have all the longings of real women, and so they are sexy within the context of the whole of human eros. The men are virile and passionate and quite conscious of what’s required to be real men. The longings of men and women, it goes without saying, overlap in many ways, but any Darwinian knows that they remain distinct and complementary. Most American art these days is erotically lame compared to this film.
The country–meaning the rural South and anyone who identifies with the rural South–is much more Christian and more patriotic than the rest of America. And so too, of course, is country music.
This movie doesn’t include any obvious displays of patriotism. A huge American flag flows down at the beginning of spectacular display that Kelly’s (Paltrow) concert is meant to be, but the characters aren’t thinking or singing about their country. Still, the movie is a kind of defense of the American way of life as imagined in the more noble of the country songs.
None of the characters is obviously Christian. The fake former beauty queen singer with seven self-constructed smiles says that Jesus is her hero, but she does that for the fans who are her judges. And the Tim McGraw character says he’s never been much of a churchman. He also says that if he and his wife had stayed at home, she would be singing in the church choir. But they didn’t.
Still, the two themes of the movie are quite Christian. The first is the importance of forgiveness for redeeming us from our sinful, self-destructive brokenness. The Paltrow character can’t forgive herself for killing her unborn baby in a drunken fall. She truthfully says not long before her suicide that she can’t change her past, but she mistakenly believes that there’s no way she can get past it but by ending herself, by disappearing. Her husband, James (McGraw), can’t forgive her either. So he can no longer love her as a husband loves his wife, although he often remembers loving her more than anyone, just as she remembers loving the baby more than anyone. Perhaps she might have been redeemed by his love. He remained determined to do everything he could to protect her, but he didn’t do enough.
The explicit and repeated theme of the film is the choice between personal love and fame. It’s the choice, St. Augustine explained, that the noble Romans faced, the fundamental choice faced by anyone blessed with extraordinary abilities. James pulled Kelly out of rehab early in pursuit in fame, for a concert tour that would revive her career. It seemed, at first, a rather dispicable act. But if both love or fame are roads to a kind of human flourishing, if there are two says of avoiding self-destruction, he seemed to have no choice but to try to cure her through reattaching her to fame. Sure, it didn’t work, but he still was working for her. One critic says McGraw is no Richard Burton, and he really isn’t a great actor. But he brings a kind of tragic gravity to his role that’s not all that distant from a kind of Christianized Shakespeare.
I still haven’t talked about the two most attractive and deep characters in the film–both of whom choose love over the virtually certain prospect of fame and so are both personally and artistically redeemed. That’s the next post.