Overview: Following the death of their father, a middle-aged brother and sister must deal with three unexpected squatters who take up residence in their family tobacco field. Gravitas Ventures; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 80 minutes.
Tell, Don’t Show: It’s hard to believe Angus MacLachlan’s Abundant Acreage Available didn’t begin life as a stage play. Constrained to a single house, a single tobacco field, and the inside of a single tent, the film almost totally neglects the desolate wilderness of its rural North Carolina setting. There are no sweeping vistas, no flashy or fancy frame compositions, no hint of any stylization that could distract from the characters and dialogue. It’s tempting to compare the film to work of Ingmar Bergman—MacLachlan lists Winter Light as a primary inspiration—but no, the film’s visual language doesn’t mimic the starkness and simplicity of Sven Nykvist as much as it creates its own, one as exhausted and drained as the aging farmers populating it. And yet, through the simple power of its screenplay and its performances, the film weaves a devastating portrait of blue collar Appalachian life as thick and illuminative as a great novel.
The set-up need take just a few sentences. After their father dies of cancer, brother and sister Tracy (Amy Ryan) and Jesse (Terry Kinney) bury his ashes in their 50-acre tobacco field. The next day, they discover three elderly brothers have set up a pup tent in the same field and refuse to leave. Tracy and Jesse find that they’re the sons of the man who sold their father the farm almost 50 years ago. One of the brothers—Hans (Max Gail)—has terminal pancreatic cancer and also wants to be buried in the field. What’s more, it seems they might want the farm back. Jesse wants to sell, Tracy doesn’t. What follows is a battle of wills between the siblings and the brothers as they squabble over who truly owns the farm—Tracy and Jesse might have the deed to the property, but after learning that the sale decades ago happened under dubious legal circumstances, it seems the three brothers might have the moral right to it. But this is all pretense. The property squabble is the means through which MacLachlan explores these characters moving through various stages of grief: Tracy and Jesse grieving their dead father, the brothers their imminent death, and all of them their fate to live desperate, economically depressed lives.
The Unspoken Tyrannies: What’s truly remarkable about Abundant Acreage Available is MacLachlan’s eye and ear for not just the characters, but the Appalachian culture that informs them. Long before Ned Beatty squealed like a pig in John Boorman’s Deliverance, American cinema has little cared to truly understand the lives of rural Appalachians, preferring to characterize them either as inbred rednecks, racist ignoramuses, or openly murderous psychopaths. There’s certainly been an uptick in sympathetic portrayals of impoverished white Southerners—Jeff Nichols has carved out a personal cottage industry doing just that—but they’ve been limited almost entirely to the Southern states bordering the Midwest like Arkansas and Texas. Hollywood seems content to let the poor and disenfranchised on the East Coast rot in their own imagined filth. And in the light of the 2016 election, this cultural hostility has reached a new fever pitch.
But MacLachlan sees his characters for the broken, tragic, yet ultimately beautiful people they are, people ruled by unspoken cultural tyrannies. Tracy, in all her indignant fury towards the brothers for wanting their farm and Jesse’s audacity in considering selling it to them, labors under the tyranny of rural hospitality. Even at the height of her anger, she must provide for her guests, perhaps best captured in an early scene where Tracy explodes at the brothers and Jesse “No, I’LL make lunch” when they offer to get their own food while living on the field. She dutifully checks on their well-being, even treating Tom (Francis Guinan), one of the brothers struggling with dementia, with patience and understanding when he makes crude sexual advances towards her—at least until he assaults her in a moment of confusion. One of the subtleties people unfamiliar with Southern hospitality might miss is that Tracy can’t outright demand the brothers leave. She can stubbornly “remind” them that they “meant to head out soon,” but she can’t force them go.
Jesse struggles under a different tyranny—the tyranny of salvation. Following a life of drunken debauchery and the accidental death of his child, Jesse became a Born Again Christian. But far from being a right-wing blowhard, Jesse’s faith informs every aspect of his life, filling him with a gentle calm and empathy. It’s this moral centering that tears him between the brothers and his sister. He knows that the farm means everything to her, but he can’t deny the brothers’ right to it. In him we see a man both freed and trapped by faith, something anybody with friends or family from the area would readily understand.
Overall: Abundant Acreage Available is a tiny chunk of insight and empathy into the lives and minds of a crucially misunderstood section of the American population. It might seem deceptively simple and straightforward, but this is a film with great depths that demands attentive rewatches.