Ray (Kevin Costner) was brought up a baseball fan, but after falling out with his father and heading off to college, he’s now found himself owning a farm in Iowa with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and young daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). All seems to be well, until Ray hears a voice in the cornfield, and has a vision of a baseball field in its place. So begins a story of faith, family and ambition, that will lead Ray down paths he never knew existed – or were even possible.If I were to lay out the entire plot of Field of Dreams – which I’m not going to do because that’s an insane level of spoiling, and it’s already been done on Wikipedia – the story would read as a wildly fantastical one, with many unexpected supernatural elements. It would also probably come off as deeply unsatisfying. You see, within this movie that is ostensibly about a man not wanting to throw his life away – as he believes his father did – there lies a lot of questions, and precious few answers. The origin of the mysterious voice Ray hears in the field, how it is talking to him and where exactly the owner is are all plot strands never entirely tied up, and many more have been added by the end of the film, yet if you’re searching for answers you’re not only looking at the wrong film, but you’ve entirely missed the point of this movie.
You see, it’s not a film where knowing how something happened is entirely necessary, it’s more about what is happening, and why. Mild spoilers will follow from this point, but I think they’re fairly well known for this film (although I wasn’t aware of them before viewing). It turns out, and by the way this is within the first act of the movie, that once Ray has built the baseball diamond, along with flood lights and seats, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) shows up to play. Joe was a great player, but was suspended indefinitely for taking a bribe that was never proven, and he was also the childhood hero of both Ray and Ray’s father, so having his ghost – if that’s what he is – show up is something of a big deal for Ray. The notion of where exactly Joe has come from is briefly touched upon but never looked at too closely – Ray’s daughter has some questions, to which she is given fairly non-committal answers. Instead, this miraculous occurrence is met with wonder, glee and excitement, especially from Ray. This is a perfect role for Costner – an actor I’ve never had a great deal of plaudits for, but who has never offended me either (except maybe in Robin Hood, but then he was just horribly mis-cast). Here, Costner is great, particularly as a guy slipping into his younger mindset, wide-eyed and almost disbelieving what he’s plainly seeing with his own eyes. At times when others would be going out of their minds, Ray and his wife instead look at the situation and say “This is really interesting.” You can’t help but love that way of thinking. They don’t instinctively look for an explanation, or seek a way of turning a profit from the situation, they just intend to make the most of it whilst it’s there, because who knows how long they’ll get to experience this, and who would believe them anyway?
I don’t really have many flaws from the film, and in fact the only one I can think of should in fact be a compliment; it’s unlike any film I’ve seen before. I don’t just mean providing questions without answers but it not seeming unsatisfying, in terms of structure and tone, this was way off from what I expected. To begin with, it takes a long time before it’s clear what the major conflict of the film is. It seems early on that it will be Ray trying to build the field against the wishes of his family and the community around him – which brings back more memories of Evan Almighty than I’d care for – but instead his impossibly supportive wife and child are helping Ray to build the field, which is completed via montage just fifteen minutes into the movie, with Shoeless Joe showing up less than five minutes later. When other mysteries arise that require Ray to journey outside of Iowa to track down a reclusive author (James Earl Jones, highlight of the film despite his belt and suspenders combo) and the most minor player to ever play in the major league (Burt Lancaster) the film develops a tone that’s impossible the tie down. It’s part mystery, part kitchen sink drama (the main conflict turns out to be how will Ray and Annie possibly be able to keep the farm when so much valuable crop space has been given over to a baseball field), a good dollop of comedy (the first meeting of Ray and Jones’ Terence Mann is just wonderful), part odd couple road movie, and of course there’s all the business with the ghosts. I was half expecting a musical number to break out, followed by a serial killer rampaging through the town and a brief animated segment set in space. It just shouldn’t work, but dammit it does.
Actually, if I do have a problem, it’s with the over-glamorizing of baseball. Some of you may know I’m not what you’d call a sports fan. I’m aware that many people seem to like it for whatever reason, but it’s something I’ve never understood. Within the world of Field of Dreams, however, baseball is something that has a mysterious quality, able to bring people together and right wrongs in life, correcting injustices from decades gone by. Also, if you’re looking to take a moral away from the film, a pretty evident one is that if you do something stupid – way beyond the point of insane, and with no consideration for logic, sense or your family’s well-being – things will still work out in the end. This is fine in an out-and-out fantasy or science fiction film, but here, in a story steeped in drama and containing elements of realism, it doesn’t quite fit. Granted, this is me looking for holes in the film, so you can ignore these issues as you will, but they’re still there if you’re willing to critique hard enough.
I’ve heard many people who become quite emotional at the climax of the film. Hopefully without giving too much away, these are generally men whose father is no longer with them. I’m lucky enough not to yet fit into that category, so as such the emotionally driven ending didn’t reduce me to tears as it has so many others. In fact, I was almost rolling my eyes at the sheer level of heartstring-tugging the score was attempting. However, should you fit the correct criteria (it’s possibly worth noting my father and I have never played sport together, despite him being an avid fan of many, with the trophies to prove it), I’m sure the ending will have the desired emotional impact.
This is not, as I’d initially expected, just another Kevin Costner baseball movie, along the lines of Bull Durham (which would not necessarily be a bad thing, as I recall enjoying that film despite it’s focus on sport). This is so much more. I can see those in need of definitive conclusions and enough exposition to write a thesis being left on the bench, but if you’re happy enough to see past the blurred edges of the script, this may well knock it out of the park. I apologize if those sports metaphors don’t make sense, but that’s the best you’re going to get from me. Back of the net.
Choose Film 9/10