Somewhere that’s green
With John Hawkes, Chris Bachand, Sam Greenlee, James McDaniel, Zach Grenier; Written and directed by Chris Ordal; Rated PG (for thematic elements, smoking and mild language); 93 minutes
In writer-director Chris Ordal’s debut film EARTHWORK, Kansas-born Stan Herd (John Hawkes) is an artistic horse of a different color. He creates “earthworks,” large-scale mural art meant to be viewed and photographed from above that incorporate the land and natural elements like grass, wood, dirt, stone and crops. Stan is very much like Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character from “Field Of Dreams,” hoping beyond all hopes that if he builds It – a massive earthwork on an unused swath of Trump-owned Manhattan real estate – that They (the grant-writers) will come. His reach exceeds his means, and he risks home and hearth to make this job the one that puts him over the top.
Key to Ordal’s ultimate success with “Earthwork” is Hawkes, Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in 2009’s dark gem “Winter’s Bone.” His aw-shucks approach to portraying the tunnel visionary makes him instantly likable, despite the stupid things Herd does, like renting a $31,000 tractor without buying insurance, not to mention the the painful smoke-and-mirrors show he puts on for his wife Janis (Penelope Ann Miller ringer Laura Kirk) regarding funding of the project, which is sure to prompt a quick “This is not going to end well” from viewers. Hawkes traded on a similar vibe in Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” (2011), in which he played an oft-pickled husband and father you couldn’t help but forgive for his screw-ups.
At times, Ordal’s reach similarly exceeds his means. His extreme budgetary constraints occasionally show, with (nonetheless breathtaking) end credit photos and video of Herd’s actual work substituting for an illustrative re-creation of the pivotal Trump ‘work. Also, his eye for cutting scenes together is a bit astigmatic, with some of the transitions feeling like a TV movie with the commercials hastily removed. However, it is Ordal’s small budget that makes the story a timeless one, too, with a news clip of O.J. Simpson’s notorious crosstown Bronco beeline that even dates the story to 1994 at all.
Ordal’s aim is true, though. He effectively conveys the essential need for a community to exist to support art in all its forms. He does this by introducing a supporting cast of characters, namely renowned photographer Peter B. Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie) and the homeless men who call the empty lot and nearby abandoned catacombs home. Their leader is El-Trac, a time-wisened poet, played with verve and metered fury by real-life octogenarian street poet Sam Greenlee. El-Trac also serves as Herd’s neighborhood sherpa, introducing him and us to this collection of cast-offs, which includes the PTSD-afflicted Lone Wolf (James McDaniel), the grief-stricken former husband and father Mayor (Zach Grenier, “J. Edgar”) and the young runaway Ryan (newcomer Chris Bachand). The mentor/father relationship that Herd forms with Ryan is sweetly handled, and its climax is pleasantly unexpected.
It has been said that explaining the artistic drive to a non-creative person – rather, someone who has not yet realized that everyone is creative in his or her own way – is akin to explaining carburetor repair to a cocker spaniel; all your fancy talk about the life of an Artist and The Groove and The Muse will at best be met with a head-tilt that only suggests understanding, but in reality is just the listener staying alert in case they have to intercept that cookie you’re holding before it hits the floor. That said, Ordal and company do a very good job in matter-of-factly demystifying Herd’s own drive – and, by proxy, the creative process in general – transforming a grand old riddle into one tender vittle.•••
Robert Newton is a longtime film writer and is also the owner of The Cape Ann Community Community Cinema in Gloucester, Mass., a wicked famous fishing village 45 minutes north of Boston.