Abundant Acreage Available (Tribeca 2017)

Abundant Acreage Available (2017)

Abundant Acreage Available is a strange, chamber piece of a film, taking as its subject the decline of two families and their dedication the land that both keeps them alive, and slowly kills them. The film opens as Tracy (Amy Ryan) and Jesse (Terry Kinney) bury their father’s ashes in the soil of their North Carolina tobacco farm. There’s already conflict there: Tracy insists on putting their father in the field where they’ll grow next year’s crops, while Jesse wants to bury him “properly” in the cemetery adjacent to the land. Things become more complicated when the brother and sister discover three elderly brothers camping on their land the next morning. The eldest brother Hans (Max Gail) explains that their family used to own the farm, but their father was more or less scammed out of it by Jesse and Tracy’s father. This revelation sets off a series of conflicts and arguments between the three brothers, and Jesse and Tracy, all of whom attempt to cling to their pasts with increasing fervor.

Abundant Acreage Available peels back layers of character and relationships without falling into the well-used trap of romanticizing its subjects. Rather than being a story about “saving the farm” or returning to one’s roots, it’s about hanging on for too long, immuring oneself in the past and the meaning of things—locations, land, possessions—rather than in the present moment and human relationships. Tracy and Charlie (Steve Coulter), the youngest brother, are the caregivers, the family members who become tied to the pain of the past via their loved ones, who in turn refuse to release past trauma. Their lives are lived in isolation from anyone outside their families—an element reinforced by the absence of establishing shots of the town, or the introduction of any characters outside the main five. The film keeps us turned inward, making much out of short sentences and unspoken ideas, the occasional bursts of anger, speech, and song all the more poignant for the intense build-up of emotion behind them.

There are no children here, and no spouses—only sibling relationships that will end with death and have no real longevity. Hans wants to return to the farm in order to die; Jesse wants to sacrifice the farm in order to fulfill the penance that he has set out for himself. Both cling to the past as something that they can somehow return to, or set to rest, without ever looking at the present or even approaching the future. Tracy, meanwhile, exists in an in-between space—she wants to hang onto the farm as a way of processing her own grief in losing her father. Her grief is in the process of becoming externalized, while Jesse’s has become so embedded in his being and in his psyche that he will never be truly free of it. She and Charlie understand one another because they are the somewhat unwilling participants in the game of the past, working through their own desires in the midst of the demands made on them by others. Their potential romantic relationship has a chance to be a “solution” for Jesse and Hans, paying off the imagined debts and putting to rest the suffering of the past, but it’s yet another kind of caregiving and insistence that Tracy and Charlie give of themselves.

One gets the sense that there is little future in Abundant Acreage Available. Set during the winter, the land is barren; all the crops have been brought in. But it’s also set on a tobacco farm—not a crop that nourishes, but one that kills and that will go on killing (it’s even implied that Jesse and Tracy’s father died from lung cancer, and both brother and sister smoke). The past of the land, those that have died on it and for it permits nothing new to grow.

Yet, the deep melancholy of its images and themes does not make Abundant Acreage Available into a fatalistic film. It grapples with the meaning of grief, the need to cling onto something, and the equal need to let go. The film pushes towards a resolution—a kind of growth—that might perhaps lift the people within it out of their winter cycle and on toward spring. Something may still grow on that farm, but first the people who lived on it, and who interred within it, have to be able to let it go.

Don Verdean (2015)

Don Verdean (2015)

don-verdean

Apparently I am into films about faith-based charlatans. Unlike Elmer Gantry, however, Don Verdean is a comedy about what it means to believe, even in the face of such difficult things like “evidence” and “historical fact.” Don Verdean focuses on the attempts of a “Biblical archaeologist” to pass off artifacts discovered in Israel as proofs of the reality of the Bible. The bizarre thing about it? He really believes in what he’s selling.

Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) makes a questionable living as a self-titled Biblical archaeologist, traveling to Israel and unearthing artifacts based on a combination of Bible verses, historical knowledge, and his professed belief in God’s guidance. He meets with pastor Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), who wants Don’s help in bringing more people into his rapidly diminishing congregation. Don has the solution: he’s discovered Lot’s Wife on a cliff in the Holy Land, and has the statue shipped over from Israel with the help of his friend and local guide Boaz (Jemaine Clement). But Lazarus isn’t satisfied with just one piece of Biblical history, and Don promises to find an even more astounding artifact: the skull of Goliath. So off Don goes, with his faithful secretary Carol (Amy Ryan), to try and discover the last resting place of David’s nemesis. When it becomes clear that the Israeli government will not let Don dig where he wants to, the desperate archaeologist does something he’s never done before: he fakes it, digging up the grave of a boxer afflicted with gigantism to pass off as Goliath’s skull. But Boaz knows what he did, and Don is now in way over his head.

Don Verdean could have been a lot of things: a satire on the faithful, a parody of people stupid-or desperate-enough to believe in the reality of the Bible that they can be sucked in by obvious fakes and questionable historical practices. But while the film is certainly satirical, it does not fall into the trap of feeling contempt for those it satirizes. Don is a true believer – he really does think that he can find artifacts by using the Bible and that he’s receiving guidance from God. The Goliath skull scam is not for money, but a desperate move to help people maintain their faith by giving them something tangible to hold onto. As Boaz sucks him deeper into the vortex, trying to convince him to make money by scamming people, Don becomes legitimately distressed. This is not what he does, and not the meaning of his work.

Unfortunately Don Verdean sacrifices some of its thoughtfulness in the second half, relying instead on some cheap shots to draw out the humor of the situation. Initially an interesting character, Boaz falls quickly into the stereotype of the money-hungry Jew – that’s bad enough, even if you don’t add in the depiction of a Chinese businessman whose accent is hard to understand. The stereotyping rather takes away from Don Verdean‘s otherwise unique take on faith and charlatanism – while all the characters are stereotyped to a degree, the other shoe never really drops with Boaz, who becomes just a problematic stereotype rather than a well-rounded character. Other jokes, including a former Satanist turned evangelical pastor played by Will Forte, never fully come to fruition, their potential abandoned for a rather rote heist narrative at the end.

Yet there is still so much to like about Don Verdean. The film is surprisingly thoughtful when it comes to the nature of faith – does it matter if the salt pillar is just a salt pillar, or the skull is just a skull? If you believe it to be Lot’s Wife, or the skull of Goliath, if it makes a difference in your life and in your faith, then what does it matter if it’s historically verifiable or not? Don’s secretary Carol becomes the central pillar around which this film is built – her faith encouraged by Don’s questionable findings, her life made more meaningful by being with him. It doesn’t much matter whether the findings are true or not – their truth is in belief, and belief is sometimes all we have.