If you liked “Manchester by the Sea” — or the kind of low-key emotional drama in which men break down and sob uncontrollably — then Martin Scorsese has the movie for you. It’s called “Abundant Acreage Available,” and it’s pretty much the opposite of anything Scorsese has directed, which stands to reason, because he didn’t direct it. North Carolina playwright-turned-director Angus MacLachlan did, and like the “Junebug” script for which he’s best known, this one achieves a tricky kind of subtlety amid so much stage-style chatter. (Just to be clear about Scorsese’s involvement, he agreed to executive produce after seeing MacLachlan’s promising debut feature, “Goodbye to All That,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival two years earlier.)
Set on a family-owned North Carolina tobacco farm, recognizable as such from its almost blood-red clay, “Abundant Acreage Available” begins as many a play has, with a pair of characters talking about one thing when what they’re really saying is written between the lines. Jesse (Terry Kinney) and Tracy Ledbetter (Amy Ryan) are brother and sister, though even that fact isn’t as simple as it seems (for reasons of adoption, not incest — it thankfully avoids that latter dysfunctional-family cliché). Their faces looking worn and weary from a lifetime on the farm, the siblings have assembled in the empty field behind their house to bury their father’s ashes.
In a field so somber one can practically feel the ghost of the tobacco plants that have grown there over the centuries, the pair bicker amicably about whether dad would’ve wanted to be laid to rest like this. But the underlying quarrel concerns what they will do next, not what to do with his remains, but their own. The paradox of the Ledbetters’ existence is that even though they manage to stay busy, not much happens in their lives — which makes Tracy’s discovery of a camping tent on the far end of their field something of an event.
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Grabbing the family rifle, she warily approaches the intruders, only to discover three old men that she and Jesse haven’t seen in nearly 50 years. They are the Triggerstroms, and they have come to bury their own father. One wants to buy back the land before he dies (Max Gail), another has been rendered mean by a stroke (Francis Guinan), and the last is kinda sweet on Tracy (Steve Coulter) — to the extent that a more playful, if not entirely accurate title for the film might have been “Four Funerals and a Wedding.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with MacLachlan’s title; it suggests that there’s enough land to go around. And besides, dust to dust. Not a one of these characters has children, so what good does it do them anyway? There’s something vaguely existential in the way MacLachlan approaches his characters, although to a one, they’re too down-to-earth to admit it — and yet the film resonates with questions about the fate of the modern farmer, the way certain personality types practically depend on tragedy to give their lives purpose, and the role of religion in the modern world (Jesse found Jesus after a family tragedy struck more than a quarter-century earlier).
As “Junebug” demonstrated a dozen years earlier, MacLachlan has a gift for both character and language, serving as an unofficial poet laureate for his rural North Carolina home — it’s as if he wants to do for the Tar Heel State what Kenneth Lonergan has for New York and Massachusetts, deliberately patterning his writing after the “You Can Count on Me” scribe. Tragedy is a fact of life here, though it tends to happen off-screen, leaving characters to deal with their grief in different ways. Meanwhile, MacLachlan’s a bit too stingy with the laughs, which bubble up in quiet observational details (it’s easy to imagine a more darkly comedic Ireland-set version of the same story being far more entertaining in the hands of someone like Michael McDonough).
No, this is too much an elegy to allow for such levity, and though audiences and critics will respect him for it, MacLachlan’s practically mirthless approach will cost the film commercially. Those who see it will likely do so for its performances, the richest of which comes from Ryan as Tracy reacts to both her father’s passing and the arrival of these three old buzzards. It’s a pleasure to see such a fine actress navigate the nuances of her role.
MacLachlan isn’t a particularly cinematic director. Shots are often framed strangely, and though nearly the entire film takes place outdoors, all the dialogue sounds as if it was looped in a stuffy recording booth. Overall, it’s the writing, not the visuals, that give the film its rural texture — and yet the material undeniably gains something vital from being made as a movie, rather than staged.
Only on the big screen are we able to fully appreciate the minutely detailed nature of Ryan’s performance, revealing Tracy’s soul via the slightest narrowing of the eyes or the almost-subliminal tensing of her cheekbones. As we know, “Junebug” earned Amy Adams an Oscar nomination, and if the world were fair, this role would bring another Amy similar attention. Then again, if the world were fair, MacLachlan wouldn’t have a story to begin with.