Earthwork Dir. Chris Ordal

[Shadow Distribution; 2011]

Styles: drama, biopic
Others: Motherfucker: A Movie; Fitzcarraldo; The Gates

In 1994, Stan Herd traveled to New York City from his home in rural Kansas to create Countryside, an earthwork roughly an acre in size that occupied the future building site of one of Donald Trump’s many real estate ventures. Herd struggled for years in almost total obscurity, and his colossal installations (his 1981 earthwork portrait of Chief Santanta occupied 160 acres of farmland) dealing with rural themes and experience had nothing of relevance or import to say to the art-with-a-capital-a crowd on either Coast. When he got his chance to create a landscape painting large enough to be seen from a low-flying airplane in the heart of Manhattan, he jumped at it. Countryside and all of the frustration and financial loss that it entailed are the subjects of Earthwork, and if parts of it weren’t so damn sanctimonious, it could’ve been a truly excellent film.

Herd, played admirably by John Hawkes — who has thankfully started landing the intriguing leading roles he deserves — embodies all those qualities a fair number of people in major metropolitan areas assume nice folks from the hinterlands possess. Amiable, kindhearted, quietly wise yet simultaneously just a little slow on the uptake, Herd’s early interactions with New Yorkers are milked for all of the easy social contrast they’re worth. The opening comparisons between the frenzied pace and general unease of city dwellers with the relative serenity and sense of wonder in Herd are a bit heavy-handed, and give the movie a decidedly moralistic tone. This tone is weirdly out of place when squared with the naturalistic aesthetic that director Chris Ordal and his team employed in making the film.

When Herd arrives at Trump’s future building site, he finds it filled with trash and overgrown with scrub. He also discovers that the site is populated with idiosyncratic homeless men. The site lies adjacent to an unused portion of the subway, providing shelter to the several oddball characters who Herd entreats to help him complete his massive landscape/art project. The way Ordal handles the interaction between Herd and these nearly archetypal hobos is comparable to a balancing act. Whereas the filmmakers played a little fast and loose in dealing with Herd’s down-hominess in comparison to the slick onyx of Manhattan, their treatment of Herd’s relationship with the downtrodden/crazy people he meets while working on his project allows for authentic relationships between Herd and these men. At this point in Earthwork, the earthwork itself begins to take a backseat to the deepening interdependency between Herd and his new friends, which is coincidentally where the film becomes totally engrossing and transcends the easy fish-out-of-water quality of its basic premise.

Ordal and his crew have made a strong film about an incredible undertaking that sadly takes itself seriously enough to become a little funny at inappropriate times. The performances are solid, the cinematography is measured and lovely, and the actual earthwork referenced by the movie’s title — recreated by Mr. Herd himself for the film — is downright awe-inspiring. Really, it’s the fact that there is so much good in this film that makes it all the more painful when it falters and starts to preach. However, it’s worth seeing just to watch Hawkes and his homeless coterie interact with each other, for those are the moments in the film that ring true and beautiful.

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