Character actor John Hawkes, his rural demeanor tailor-made for hick pics, breaks through typecasting stereotypes in his nuanced portrayal of crop artist Stan Herd in Chris Ordal’s ambitious “Earthwork.” Based on a true incident in landscape-crafter Herd’s career, the low-budget film falls somewhat short in its attempt to define the ephemerality of Art, due to borderline pretentiousness. Yet the pic’s environmental emphasis and actor Hawkes’ growing, and much-deserved, reputation could help it attract auds in reasonable numbers during its current New York run and May 20 opening in Los Angeles.
Far from Hawkes’ sepulchrally sinister hillbilly in “Winter’s Bone,” the figure he portrays here is a somewhat comically distracted, inwardly driven Kansas farmboy-turned-artist in jeans, cowboy hat and wire-rimmed glasses. A montage of childhood flashbacks, showing a juve Herd stacking barnyard bric-a-brac and incorporating nearby vegetation, establishes the m.o. by which the older Herd (Hawkes) came to refashion plots of land into big agricultural mosaics, entirely visible only from above.
Aerial photographer “Kap” (Bruce MacVittie), Herd’s biggest fan, wishing that his friend’s creations were more widely appreciated, tips him off that Donald Trump’s organization is soliciting candidates to do a makeover of a giant, unkempt, Trump-owned vacant lot in the middle of New York — a stopgap urban beautification project before the inevitable erection of a skyscraper. Herd secures the gig immediately, mainly by promising to do the work gratis. Herd’s extreme rustic look amid the lawyerly, well-appointed applicants in Trump’s office plays up his fish-out-of-water quality. Later, Herd disarms a store owner by ordering “50 railroad ties, 1,200 square yards of sod and a half a ton of mulch.”
Everything within the parameters of the space, a world unto itself, is shot impressionistically by lenser Bruce Francis Cole, including quick glimpses of curious gawkers peering through the surrounding chain-link fence, unexpected visits from upstairs neighbors, residents of offscreen condos with a bird’s-eye-view of the proceedings. Other fleeting phantoms turn out to be longtime squatters on the site — “Mayor” (Zach Grenier), “Lone Wolf” (James McDaniel), “El-Trac” (writer/activist Sam Greenlee) and “Ryan” (Chris Bachand), the latter a soulful graffiti artist who feels a kinship with Herd because of their mediums’ shared perishability.
Together with this motley homeless crew , Herd arranges lines of bricks to shape the pictorial outlines of his magnum opus, planting patches of corn, cucumbers, squash or watermelons to achieve the perfect texture or the right splash of color.
“Earthwork” ultimately hangs on the question of whether Art’s essence lies in its collective making or in how posterity regards it. Hawkes’ Herd, now suddenly interviewed for a New Yorker article and gaining network television exposure for the first time, swears that “this is the big one.” But a twist ending finds the unveiling of Herd’s masterpiece competing with another headline-grabbing event.
Herd himself served as the film’s consultant and devised the helicopter-shot title sequence wherein credits are spelled out in huge organic earthworks.