Tuesday, February 14, 2017

American Fable: Farm Subsidies and Other Crimes

Probably no profession carries as much extraneous romanticizing as the family farmer. Everyone assumes farming is inherited through the genes and if you were born on a plot of land than you are destined to work it. That almost sounds like serfdom. Meanwhile, nobody asks what all those price supports do for the cost of food for the urban working poor. Maybe Gitty’s father Abe was actually better suited to a different line of work, but he considers himself a born farmer. To save their ailing farm Abe and her brutish older brother Martin will entwine themselves in a risky criminal scheme in Anne Hamilton’s American Fable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gitty (short for Gertrude) idolizes her father Abe, but her mega-pregnant mother Sarah not so much—and her jerkheel brother even less so. Therefore, when she discovers a battered man evidently being held captive in their silo, the implications are quite troubling. Rather puzzlingly, he implores her not to speak to her father of him. Instead, he asks her to bring food and books, which she does.

He would be Jonathan, an agri-businessman, who is soon reported missing (under suspicious circumstance) on the local news. Not being an idiot, Gitty starts to suspect Honest Abe and Murderous Martin are behind his abduction, apparently in cahoots with a Cruella de Vil figure known as Vera. The more time she spends with the captive, the more she fears for his safety.

Coming-of-age sure can be disillusioning, can’t it? At eleven years-old, Gitty will have to choose between her soul and her family (and possibly her life). Given her circumstances, we can well understand why she has such surreal dreams. She is also prone to fall into bouts of symbolically laden reverie. Her subconscious takes special inspiration from chess pieces, but she seems to forget her father’s evocative tale of scarecrows (Chekhov would not approve).

Hamilton paid her first dues under Terence Malick’s tutelage and you can see his influence in her Andrew Wyeth-esque imagery. Frankly, there is a lot of Americana influencing Fable, including To Kill a Mockingbird and even Huck Finn. After all, Gitty must decide whether she will do the right thing, even though it runs counter to the class warfare values she has been inculcated in.

Peyton Kennedy is a forceful and relatively mature Scout Finch-figure, who holds up well under the film’s long, close-up scrutiny. Likewise, Richard Schiff is terrific as the hostage, conveying all due desperation, as well as his own compassion for the bullied and misunderstood Gitty. Gavin MacIntosh is just ridiculously hostile as Martin. It gets to the point we just can’t believe respectable parents like Abe and Sarah would put up with his abusive behavior. On the flipside, Kip Pardue’s Abe completely lacks the dark edge a desperate kidnapping accomplice really needs to have.

Hamilton allows Abe to misrepresent the Aesop fable of “The Lion & the Mouse,” presenting it, without correction, more in the spirit of “The Scorpion and the Frog,” which apparently dates back to Orson Welles in Mr. Arkadin. That poor lion gets slandered. Regardless, Fable features two excellent central performances, but the trappings are a tad over-stylized. Still, as debuts go, it shows promise. Recommended for fans of rural gothic, American Fable opens this Friday (2/17) in New York, at the IFC Center.