Earthwork: Starring Oscar Nominee John Hawkes




 Chris Ordal’s “Earthwork” is supposed to be all about actor John Hawkes, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for his role in Debra Granik’s highly acclaimed indie, “Winter’s Bone.”



In Ordal’s film, Hawkes plays crop artist Stan Herd, who in 1994 traveled to New York City from Kansas to turn a vacant lot owned by Donald Trump into a work of art—at least for those who could get up high enough to view it, namely condo dwellers and helicopter users.



“Earthwork” proves that Hawkes can carry a movie, but this is a decent performance from him, not a great one, despite the actor’s undeniable enthusiasm for the part. Somehow Hawkes and the film itself are unable to reveal Stan Herd as a complex individual.



In fact, Hawkes, who was nominated for “Winter’s Bone” as best supporting actor, is nearly overshadowed by the supporting roles in his own film. When his character sets to work on turning the trash-filled lot into his own Garden of Eden, the colorful homeless people who traverse the space become his little art army, putting their hearts and souls into his piece as if it were their own.



The supporting actors’ performances are uneven, but their characters are by and large more compelling than Stan Herd, who comes off as too much of a one-dimensional bumpkin, an affable cowboy in the big city for the first time.



Of special note is Sam Greenlee as El-Trac, the senior figure and poet of the homeless troupe, who has great lines like “I love to watch other people work.”



According to a prologue in “Earthwork,” Herd found his artistic calling as a boy, creating his first “crop pieces” as a preteen. Not all of his work is strictly of the crop-circle variety: Herd creates gigantic images with the land as his canvas and plants, wood, rocks, sand, and the like as his paint. (Over the closing credits, we get to see several of Herd’s impressive pieces.)



This calling turned out to not be a great way for Herd to make any kind of living, at least during the period that “Earthwork” covers. When he makes his proposal to Trump’s people to do the lot, Herd is fueled with a kind of last-chance desperation to make it as an artist—a desperation intensified by his wife’s frustrations with their dismal finances and the state of their marriage as well.



When the wife (Laura Kirk) eventually finds out that Herd’s winning bid to Trump was that he would cover all costs himself—and that he has taken out a loan, without her assent, to keep the family afloat, even forging her signature—it naturally does not go over well. But the film steers clear of closely examining his recklessness. We know that Herd is a gifted artist struggling for recognition, and that is about it. This man is risking his family life and working himself to exhaustion, but his inner state, possibly unstable, never comes into focus in Ordal’s film.



Most of the movie centers on Herd’s relationships with the homeless guys. They come to constitute an alternate family for him that starts to take precedence over his wife and young son waiting back in Kansas.



Ordal is continually on the verge of making things too cute in “Earthwork”: these homeless people are the prime example, always seeming a little too clean, even a little too magical. Each one has some kind of secret, some revealing back story, that Herd gradually and rather predictably susses out in trying to bring out each man’s best. Herd’s effort to help the most disturbed of the men, Lone Wolf (James McDaniel), is at once the most moving and most discomfiting aspect of the film. McDaniel’s performance is at times overwrought, his role as written by Ordal a kind of wild animal that needs to be tamed by Herd with coffee and medication.



The quirks of the homeless people, especially Lone Wolf’s, are sometimes used offensively by the director for comedic effect. These are, then, cartoony homeless people that, while entertaining, would have added more to the film’s depth if Ordal had been more willing to show their dangerous side. They’re a touch too nice, too smart, and too easy to figure out.



The lot in question, which is essentially one of the main characters, is another part of the film that verges on being too cute. We get a great sense of this field as a place in and of itself but no sense of it in a New York City context. There are only rare shots of the neighborhood surrounding the lot. We get no idea until very late in the film of the towering condos all around, from which literally thousands of people have been, one would reason, watching the creation of this work on a daily basis.



Most of “Earthwork” was shot in a Kansas field. We cannot blame the filmmaker for not having a bigger budget, but indeed this is the strange case of a New York film that does not seem to be taking place anywhere near New York. This has to be one of the quietest “movie New Yorks” ever committed to film. The field seems to be floating in some dream space far from any real city whatsoever. It is too neat, too much of a sanctuary away from all the teeming humanity that make a major metropolis.



Even so, the films shows a strong feel for the hard work and group effort that goes into making any kind of art on this scale. We do understand what it would mean to clear an overgrown piece of land and transform it, step by difficult step, over the course of many weeks and months, into something beautiful and unforgettable, even if temporarily.






Stan Herd – John Hawkes


Lone Wolf – James McDaniel


Mayor – Zach Grenier


Jan Herd – Laura Kirk


Ryan – Chris Bachand


El-Trac – Sam Greenlee






A Shadow Distribution release.


Directed and written by Chris Ordal.


Produced by Brendon Glad, Chris Ordal, and Brad Roszell.


Cinematography, Bruce Francis Cole.


Editing, Brad Roszell.


Original music, David Goodrich.



Running time: 93 minutes.