Writer-director: Chris Ordal
Starring: John Hawkes, James McDaniel, Zach Grenier, Laura Kirk, Bruce MacVittie, Chris Bachand, Sam Greenlee, Brendon Glad
Wiry and kind of owlish at the same time, looking a bit like the physical model for the animated character of Scrat from the “Ice Age” films, John Hawkes is a bonafide character actor — someone whose face a lot of filmgoers might recognize, but not quite be able to place. That’s in the process of changing.
Hawkes has had success and glowing media notices before (Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” was the darling of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival), but achieved a whole new level of breakout attention last year with his turn in “Winter’s Bone”>, for which he was eventually nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Another small festival film, shot in 2008 but only now winding its way to theaters, the stirring “Earthwork”> affords Hawkes the opportunity to showcase his talents front and center, as a leading man. If there’s justice, this unfussy drama will entice a sizable arthouse audience, and perhaps as a result help pave the way for more lead roles for Hawkes.
Based on a true story, and set mostly in the 1990s, the film focuses on Kansas “crop artist” Stan Heard (Hawkes), whose unique, living canvases can sometimes encompass hundreds of acres. Despite being costly, the other major dilemma such temporary art presents is that it almost always requires aerial assistance to be seen properly, meaning that the only way Stan can monetize his work is through photographs. Struggling to support his wife Jan (Laura Kirk) and 7-year-old son, Stan decides to take one last roll of the dice, hoping that a no-cost bid to clean and beautify a property owned by Donald Trump in New York City will bring him the sort of national publicity that could put he and his family on financial “terra firma”>. He wins the contract.
Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Stan relocates for a couple months to his new work site, an abandoned lot on the Upper West Side. There, he discovers a group of homeless squatters, inclusive of a troubled schizophrenic known only as Lone Wolf (James McDaniel). They regard him with squirelly confusion at first, but eventually their curiosity gets the better of them, and they join Stan, helping in his work of art. Even with their occasional assistance, though, Stan’s success is far from guaranteed. Financial setbacks, home pressures and the uncertainty of any wider recognition funnel towards a finale that is at once heartrending and uplifting.
“Earthwork”> is somewhat of a piece with the early films of David Gordon Green, “George Washington”> and “All The Real Girls”>. (It also recalls the criminally underseen topiary documentary “A Man Named Pearl”>.) It’s not quite as steeped in ephemeral arthouse postures, but it’s gorgeously photographed, by Bruce Francis Cole, and its unhurried yet confident rhythms indicate a powerful and fortifying belief in the material, and the universality of its emotional connection. Using a cast peppered with a few non-professional and/or neophyte actors, writer-director Chris Ordal does something a lot of young filmgoers either can’t do, or consciously try to avoid — tell a simple story, simply, and without overindulging in stylistic gimmicks or emotional manipulation.
Ordal doesn’t pass judgment on his homeless characters, but he is wise enough to let a low-key element of danger hang in the air early on, when Stan first “moves in” to their territory. That dissipates some as they get to know one another, but realistic divisions remain, however. These characters are nicely sketched individuals with their own personalities, not merely some wan, monolithic enablers of Stan’s vision.
The things missing from “Earthwork”> are chiefly a function of budget and time, one presumes. Although some lovely aerial shots adorn the artful opening and closing credits, more of this perspective as it relates to Stan’s New York work would have further bolstered an audience’s appreciation of and connection to his work, and plight. And, without ruining the specifics of the rather incredible conclusion, the film’s wrap-up — even with a coda that includes footage of the real-life Heard, and his work — could have benefited from a slight re-thinking.
Hawkes, though, is the sturdy peg upon which this entire enterprise hangs. He emanates a basic deceny that makes Stan very relatable, and someone in whom you have a strong rooting interest. “Earthwork”>, like its star, isn’t flashy or glamorous — just very good.
Written by: Brent Simon