Family Plot
By Elbert Ventura

Abundant Acreage Available
Dir. Angus MacLachlan, U.S., Gravitas Ventures

The following review contains minor spoilers.

The ashen skies and hard soil of a North Carolina farm in winter provide the backdrop for Angus MacLachlan’s Abundant Acreage Available, a movie about the dead, the dying, and what to do about them. It opens with a shovel going into the dirt, as Tracy Ledbetter (Amy Ryan) digs a hole for her recently deceased father’s ashes. Her brother, Jesse (Terry Kinney), joins her outside but raises an objection, wishing a more sacred resting spot for dad. She ignores him and keeps working. “This is his place,” she replies curtly—a proclamation that hints at this spare film’s rumination on the gravitational pull of home.

That pull brings three more grievers into the picture. Hans, Charles, and Tom, three brothers all north of 50, appear one day camping out on the farm’s periphery. They’ve come on a pilgrimage—the farm, it turns out, was once home, and the brothers would like to bring their ownfather’s ashes to rest there. Jesse remembers them when they were all children; the men’s father, he recalls, had tears in his eyes when he handed over the keys to the Ledbetters. Hans tells Jesse that their father had a weakness for drink, and that the farm was sold during a low point. Papa Ledbetter pounced on that weakness and got the farm for a song.

This revelation and the brothers’ nagging presence fuel the plot, such as it is. Set in one location and trotting out a cast of five, Abundant Acreage Available is as lean and concise as its title is long and lumbering. MacLachlan first came to our attention as the screenwriter of Junebug (2005), a lovely portrait of the tensions that bind a family (also North Carolinian). His directorial debut, 2014’s Goodbye to All That, tracked the sexual misadventures of a newly divorced man, but its thoughtful depiction of his loving if clueless relationship with his daughter was its beating heart. Abundant Acreage Available finds MacLachlan tilling similar ground, exploring the idiosyncratic dynamics that form among siblings.

Tracy’s brusque dismissal of Jesse in the movie’s opening scene captures the essence of their decades-long relationship. Short-fused and skeptical, Amy Ryan’s Tracy is younger than Jesse but doesn’t act it. She’s aware that she overdoes it sometimes—“You know I’m not mean,” she tells Jesse at one point when her low boil dies down to a simmer. Long one of our best actresses, Ryan finds here a role that measures up to her talents. Her Tracy is a model of frontier flintiness (she seems airlifted in from Kelly Reichardt’s west), but she’s hardly stoic. She can get hurt, more easily than you might think, and that vulnerability gives Tracy a pathos that lingers. (It also makes her the latest in a line of memorable female protagonists this year, which also includes Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Kristin Stewart in Personal Shopper, and Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey in Columbus.) Kinney is no less Ryan’s equal. His Jesse is an altogether more fragile creature, a devout, soft-spoken man with an overripe sense of guilt. Hans’s revelation tarnishes the land in Jesse’s eyes and hounds his conscience. He becomes convinced that the right thing to do is to sell the place back to the brothers, a decision guided by prayer and informed by his own tragic loss.

Specters of departed souls and past selves haunt the characters in Abundant Acreage Available. Hans is dying of pancreatic cancer; he is, as he puts it, “an old dog looking to lay his bones down.” Tom is a shadow of himself, having suffered a stroke that turned him into a foul-mouthed codger. (His occasional yawps of vulgarity bring some cheap laughs.) Charles, the “baby” of the three, just goes along with Hans and Tom, hardly ever venturing his own opinion.

Revelations detonate at regular intervals; epiphanies are more scarce. The movie can plod at times, with the needle hardly ever swinging past a certain tonal range, but its ideas resonate. Although it touches on ethereal, even cosmic, matters, the film is grounded in the palpable. Jesse and Tracy’s more material concerns reverberate with implications: Does it matter where we bury the bodies of our dead? Is the land we own truly ours? The film’s insistence on land as sanctuary, for both the living and the dead, gives the film a timeless air—it could have been set 50 or 100 years ago—even as it speaks unexpectedly to our political moment.

In past interviews, MacLachlan has talked about his turn toward writing scripts scaled modestly enough to get made after a post-Junebug drought. Goodbye to All That broke the schneid, and Abundant Acreage Available seems to have been conceived in the same vein. A testament to the director’s practicality, the movie is compact and contained to the point of being stagebound. MacLachlan is also a playwright, and his direction here serves mostly to transmit narrative information, generally not venturing much beyond the functional. Nevertheles, there are wisps of cinematic inspiration, grace notes like the image of a tent at twilight, lit up from inside, as the brothers serenade themselves to sleep, or the wordless cleanup of a room where someone has just passed away.

Abundant Acreage Available may be fixated on death, but it really depicts transitions. (It could have been called Goodbye to All That.) It ends with two acts of liberation—an emancipation proclamation from Charles, a cathartic gesture by Tracy—and a pan up to the night sky. They may add up to an overdetermined finish, but they’re generous touches. Two films into his directorial career, MacLachlan has shown range, following his spry, funny debut with this austere production. And there are signs of growth—Tracy, one of the strongest female characters on screen this year, may well be a form of penance for the succession of manic pixie sexpots in Goodbye to All That. MacLachlan is still finding his voice as a director, but he knows his milieu (North Carolina in its myriad forms), and he’s found his subject: family as ballast, family as burden.