“It’s all that okra that she eats,” says ’night, Mother’s matriarch, Thelma Cates (Anne Bancroft), to her daughter, Jessie (Sissy Spacek), to explain why the older woman’s closest friend, an eccentric named Agnes, is the way she is. “You can’t just willy-nilly eat okra two meals a day and expect to get away with it. Made her crazy!” This is later revealed as a white lie—Thelma is trying to hide the fact that Agnes doesn’t come around because she’s simply spooked by Jessie (and her cold hands)—but what matters here is that it momentarily passes for truth: Okra is a staple in the town where Jessie and Thelma live, and local superstition suggests that the vegetable has the ability to disrupt normal behavior.
The surest safeguard against this form of derangement? Everything in moderation. ’night, Mother, a 1986 Universal Pictures release directed by Tom Moore, who also helmed the Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Marsha Norman, is an earnest work that traffics in such truisms. It takes place almost entirely in one house in the space of one night—the night on which Jessie plans to end her life with Daddy’s pistol. She gives Mother verbal notice as the clock ticks away (in her first on-screen action, Jessie even synchronizes the house’s timepieces, all collected on the kitchen counter), touching off the wildly emotional one-on-one that makes up most of the film. Jessie tells her mother that she’s simply tired of life. Divorced, estranged from her son, and lacking hobbies, Jessie no longer derives any pleasure from anything, and doesn’t see the point in keeping on. Jessie muses that if she “really liked rice pudding or cornflakes for breakfast or something”—again with the regional delicacies—she could soldier on, but she doesn’t, and so she can’t.
The precise geographical setting of ’night, Mother is never expressly stated, and, aside from plaintive bookends that show the exterior of the peaceful but shuttered Cates house, there are few glimpses of the surrounding landscape. Continue reading Benjamin Mercer’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.