Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

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Rebound


Gag me with a gag.

Gag me with a gag.

(2014) Horror (Look At Me) Ashley James, Mark Scheibmeir, Julia Beth Stern, Kevin Bulla, Wes O’Lee, Brett Johnston, Bruce Cole-Edwards, Dan Sutter, Liz Bauer, Ali Williams. Directed by Megan Freels

One of the worst things that can happen to you in a relationship is being cheated upon. The feeling of betrayal is overwhelming; it attacks your sense of self-worth and makes you question yourself – what did I do wrong? – as opposed to blaming the person who made the decision to cheat in the first place. It hurts everyone it happens to, but some people take it harder than others.

Claire (James) has felt the sting. An aspiring actress struggling to find roles in Los Angeles, she comes home one afternoon to find her boyfriend of three years (Johnston) in the throes of passion with a co-worker (Williams) who will go down in film history as having the bitchiest smile ever recorded.

Claire is quite naturally devastated. After some soul searching (and tearful showers), she decides that it is time to cut her losses and go back home to Chicago. She talks things over with her best friend Shannon (Stern) who wonders if she’s not just running away from her problems and advises her to think of it more as a vacation and less as a permanent move, but Claire is adamant. A road trip back to Chicago it is and the opportunity to take stock of her life and begin anew.

Even with the best of intentions things can go devastatingly wrong and in Claire’s case, they turn from bad to worse. An encounter with a homeless woman (Bauer) leaves Claire shaken; she also manages to lose her cell phone. And of course when she’s in the middle of nowhere later that evening, her car breaks down. A sympathetic driver (O’Lee) picks her up and takes her to the local mechanic, Eddie (Scheibmeir) who diagnoses the problem as a timing belt. The bill is more than Claire can afford, so she manages to talk the handsome but shy mechanic down to a little less by using her natural charm. The part won’t be available until the next day, so Claire will need to spend the night in the flea speck of a town.

Eddie drops her off at the local bar where she gets something to eat and drink, courtesy of a none-too-friendly bartender (Bulla) and samples the less than savory citizenry. That’s when her eyesight begins to blur and before long Claire is in a nightmarish situation that makes being cheated on look like good news.

Freels who also wrote the movie takes a very simple concept and makes it compelling. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here – this is what is called in the industry a micro-budgeted film – and they really aren’t needed. Everything revolves around Claire’s emotional breakdown and Murphy’s Law made horror film high concept.

On the negative side, the dialogue can be a bit clunky; particularly the conversation between Claire and Shannon which at times didn’t sound like the way two people naturally talk. There is also a bit of overacting in a melodramatic sense, and the music kind of underscores it; Freels’ approach of “less is more” would have done the movie good in the music department. The good news is that the film gets a lot better once Claire hits the road which is pretty early on.

This might be classified by some as torture porn but there is kind of a film noir vibe which is unexpected and welcome. Not a noir of the Bogart kind mind you, but more of a Robert Mitchum sort. This isn’t Cape Fear but it’s a distant cousin.

And now, a few words about the film’s ending. One of my big problems with indie films in general is that often the ending is a disappointment. Not so here. The ending is strong and unexpected, but logical. It’s what makes me think that Freels has a great deal of promise as a filmmaker and writer.

This isn’t for the faint of heart and there are some fairly gruesome scenes here, but all in all this is a solid debut feature for Freels, who has been a producer of films for a few years now. Her first stint in the director’s chair is flawed as you might expect, but promising. I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be checking out this movie after she makes one that hits it big.

WHY RENT THIS: Uncomfortable but delicious ending.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Melodramatic acting. Clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence (some gruesome), sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freels is the granddaughter of the legendary writer Elmore Leonard.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, VimeoGoogle Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Straight Outta Compton