Dir: Chris Ordal
“We’re standin’ on the canvas.” This is the explanation offered by Stan Herd (John Hawkes) when he’s asked about his unique artistry in the film Earthwork. Herd creates with a tractor, some seeds and agricultural know-how, turning tracts of land into vast images that can only be seen properly from high up in the air. Something that appears to be a uniquely designed garden down on terra firma looks like a portrait or a landscape when looked at from amongst the clouds. Interpretation of any art is based on perspective, a truth that Herd makes literal with his approach.
Based on a true story, the film depicts Herd as the sort of earnest misfit dreamer that is irresistible to cinematic creators. Someone like Herd – whose work requires patience, perseverance and a level of care built on equal parts hard toil and cottony delicacy – stands as an earthy reflection on all the underappreciated writers and directors who endeavor to transform their most stirring notions into something tangible that can be threaded through a projector.
That corollary is not lost on writer-director Chris Ordal, who makes his feature debut with Earthwork. As Ordal writes in the film’s press material, “The further I dug into Stan’s art, the closer I came to discovering my own.” The film certainly plays like something constructed with a little too much warm empathy. Unfailingly polite in its depiction of Herd, Ordal allows the suspect choices he makes to be instantly reversed with a quick forgiveness. Repercussions don’t last much longer than a scene.
The film begins with a prologue of Herd as a boy (Jackson Hoy) in Protection, Kansas in 1960, discovering his talent for arranging materials to deliver a surprising overhead view. It then flips forward to 1986, staying in that timeframe just long enough to establish that Herd is now a family man in Lawrence, Kansas, still practicing his unique art with aspirations towards being celebrated for it that get a potentially fortuitous boost when he befriends a photographer named Peter Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie). There’s one more leap through time, signaled by the title card “7 years later,” that brings the film to its central period.
Urged by Kaplan to take his art to New York City, where it will theoretically be appreciated, Herd secures a contract to beautify a vacant lot in advance of a skyscraper going up on the site. Held gets the job by agreeing to do it for no fee whatsoever. The end result needs to get him the wider recognition necessary to make his passion into a profitable endeavor, especially after he surreptitiously uses the household holding as leverage for a hefty bank loan. When Held rents a tractor and agrees to a hefty fine if it’s damaged while also forgoing the offered insurance, it’s not hard to guess what fate awaits that piece of heavy machinery.
As he goes to work on the urban plot of land, Held collects compatriots from the homeless men who spent their nights in the vicinity. There’s nothing especially novel about the characters that populate this makeshift communal team – each man has a few requisite quirks and generally proceed with the wounded nobility that films usually impose on homeless character – but Ordal does capture how a group like this grows together in fits and starts. Some of the individuals may seem contrived, but the whole comes across as genuine. What’s more, Ordal doesn’t discard the characters as mere supporting props, and instills in them a sense of ownership over their contribution to Held’s work that feels right.
The portrayal of Held is ultimately the most important piece of the film, and Ordal has an important ally in Hawkes. The deserving Oscar nominee from Winter’s Bone brings integrity to his acting as a matter of course. Hawkes defaults to an honest appraisal of his character and fills in the corners with subtle, honest feeling. His version of Held displays both the empathy and observation of an artist along with the quiet hesitancy of someone who’s known disappointment.
The knowing performance by Hawkes displays an openness and commitment that matches nicely the film’s predominant theme. Ordal may conform to some patterns that suggest otherwise, but he doesn’t seem especially interested in venerating Held as a misunderstood genius deserving of wealth and fame. Indeed, Earthwork is a grateful appreciation of the intrinsic value in creating art, with the impermanent nature of Held’s works emphasizing this point. If the art will inevitably return to the earth, washed away or plowed under, then just making it in the first place must be the purpose. Whether on a subway wall or in an isolated Midwestern field, just the fact that the art exists and was formed with committed hands is reason enough to be proud.
by Dan Seeger