The versatile John Hawkes plays a gentle, creative soul in Earthwork, inhabiting a very different place on the character spectrum from his Ozark scrabbler in Winter’s Bone. His convincing portrayal of real-life “crop artist” Stan Herd is the exceedingly quiet center of an exceedingly nonabrasive film that, despite some lovely artisanal touches, has all the dramatic energy of plants growing. With a boost from its lead actor’s recent Oscar nomination, the indie feature caps a nearly two-year run on the festival circuit with a theatrical bow April 29 in New York; Los Angeles follows on May 20.
First-time writer-director Chris Ordal focuses on the 1994 project that marked the Kansan visionary’s first leap toward a wider audience. Spurred by a photographer friend (all his earthworks, as he calls them, require the bird’s-eye view of aerial photography), the financially strapped Stan applies for a commission in New York. He wins the job — the chance to create one of his crop images in an empty lot owned by Donald Trump — by offering to cover all his expenses, necessitating a second mortgage that he hides from his wife (Laura Kirk). When it arises, their domestic discord plays out with the same mildness that characterizes the film as a whole.
Though it’s secondary to Ordal’s deeper concerns, dramatic friction would have enriched his themes: the pursuit of artistic expression against the odds, and the ephemeral nature of Stan’s work. The artist’s Manhattan opus will give way to a skyscraper, and all his creations, like sturdier versions of sand mandalas, will yield to time and the elements.
The extraordinary opening title sequence, which many viewers in this digital age will assume is CGI, showcases custom earthworks by Herd. That handcrafted quality informs the entire film, from Stan’s work-in-progress to the meticulous re-creation of the graffiti-ringed lot where he works for most of a year.
But even with the filmmakers’ attention to period-specific tagging styles, there’s no real sense of the surrounding city. The Kansas-shot film’s approximation of Trump organization offices — wood-veneer paneling, not a marble column in sight — feels as faux as the Midwestern extras who pose as New Yorkers, undercutting the intended we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore culture clash. And sticker shock: The cost of supplies and equipment rental in the big city is a source of never-ending surprise for Stan, who tells one vendor with typical understatement, “I’m not really an insurance kinda guy.”
Although they’re not exactly New York gritty, the handful of tunnel dwellers that become Stan’s crew, each an artist in his own right, at least up the eccentricity quotient. Within the film’s play-acting sensibilities, they also underscore the outsider element of Stan’s obsession. Octogenarian political activist and writer Sam Greenlee (The Spook Who Sat by the Door), who plays poet El-Trac, is especially charismatic in his screen debut.
If the difficulties Stan faces during his months away from his family are described more than felt, Earthwork captures his no-nonsense sweetness. But as good as Hawkes is, glimpses of the real Stan over the end credits only signal how much more impact a documentary portrait might have had.
Opens: April 29 (Shadow Distribution)
Production companies: A homeTown collaboraTions production in association with CO,ink.
Cast: John Hawkes, James McDaniel, Zach Grenier, Laura Kirk, Bruce MacVittie, Chris Bachand, Sam Greenlee, Brendon Glad
Screenwriter-director: Chris Ordal
Producers: Brendon Glad, Chris Ordal, Brad Roszell
Executive producers: Scott Allegrucci, Matt Cullen, Laura Kirk, Pete Rowland
Director of photography: Bruce Francis Cole
Production designer: Ruben Arana-Downs
Music: David Goodrich
Editor: Brad Roszell
Rated PG, 93 minutes