In his narrative debut, writer/director Chris Ordal undertakes an ambitious biopic that explores the life and works of “crop artist” Stan Herd. While it sometimes stumbles, Earthwork is overall an intimate and uplifting portrait of a man whose art is both literally and figuratively groundbreaking.
Oscar-nominee John Hawkes stars as Stan, a simple man from Kansas whose life ambition is to turn patches of land into living canvases. Earthwork follows Stan’s journey to transform a trash-strewn lot on Manhattan’s Upper West Side into a vibrant work of art before bulldozers make way for a new Trump hotel. When pitching his proposed piece to Trump’s people, Stan hurriedly declares he only needs them to pay for the land – that he’ll cover the cost of all supplies himself. To pay for his materials, he precariously juggles his family’s finances – promising his supportive but long-suffering wife (Laura Kirk) that this project will be the one that changes everything. In short, he risks his family’s life savings — and by extension his marriage — to create a piece of artwork (or “earthwork” as he calls it) that is best-viewed from a helicopter. It’s a lofty dream from a man who looks more like a farmer than an artist, but Hawkes’ grounded performance is unflappably winsome, making Stan’s unusual ambition one that’s easy to root for.
When Stan reaches the lot, he eagerly digs in, clearing the discarded refuse from its pits and weeds. His alterations soon cause him to butt heads with his unexpected neighbors: a group of homeless men who reside in the nearby subway tunnels. But Stan’s Southern-styled good nature is contagious, and before long his plucky resilience wins over these vagrants and vandals who had called the lot their own. Slowly they bond, and together they till the soil, plant seeds, and landscape to create a painting from plants. It’s a touching and well-developed story arc. Like his junkyard garden, Stan brings new life to these men who’ve been forgotten on the city’s fringe. These scenes of budding friendships prove most vivid, while Stan’s troubled marriage grows stagnant and stalls the picture’s pace. Appropriately, it’s in the lot where the film, like it’s hero, shines. There Stan’s ardent artistry attracts and encourages the gruff poet (Sam Greenlee), the figurative mayor (Zach Grenier), the mumbling madman (James McDaniel), and the smiling graffiti artist (Chris Bachand) as well as the more fortunate denizens of the wealthy neighborhood.
Sadly, as one might suspect, Stan’s struggling artist tale is not an outright happy one. His earthwork – while striking – does not reach the wide audience he’d hoped for. So, as the bulldozers roll, Stan is left broke and bruised. But the film posits that how a piece of work is perceived is not the point. Instead, the success of art lays its very creation. In this way, Earthwork is a bittersweet yet inspiring tale of the hard-won effort to create art – no matter how temporary its shelf-life. As the credits roll, aerial shots of Stan’s real creations illicit awed gasps from audience members. These expansive “paintings” are stunning in their scope and somehow more precious because of their temporary nature. What Earthwork aims to capture is the determined spirit behind these seemingly impossible pictures, and it does so with a gentle hand and impressive aplomb.
Ordal’s Earthworks is filled with warmth and nuance that makes it a joy to behold. Its fluid cinematography gently drifts over subtle yet lively performances enveloped within the captivating visuals of the emerging earthwork. The score lilts along, complimenting the film’s simple aesthetic. Indeed, Ordal’s debut shows a silent confidence in that he allows the piece to unfold gracefully without bogging it down with manipulative music cues or breast-beating theatrics. Instead, he allows Hawkes to shoulder the film. And he does so admirably, crafting a complicated depiction that shows Stan as an everyman and a dreamer, a family man and an artist, a genius and a madman. While this feature sometimes falls victim to some of the biopic genre’s hokier conventions (like an over-reliance on time-transitioning montage sequences), it’s overall a delicately crafted portrait of an outsider artist that proves surprisingly affable and accessible. It’s a fittingly mean feat to pay tribute to an artist known for his own industrious yet vulnerable style.
Earthwork opens today in NYC, expands to Kansas May 13, Los Angeles May 20th, and Santa Fe May 27th.