Earthwork tells a true story that has the potential to compellingly refute the trajectory of most films about struggling artists who risk it all for one last chance at discovery. In 1994, Stan Herd (John Hawkes), a Kansas farmer and crop artist just barely supporting his wife and son, offered to create a large environmental art form, or earthwork, on an abandoned NYC lot—owned by a Donald Trump company—for free in order to beat out the other more established, connected bidding artists. Herd even waived charges for expenses, which he covered with a loan on the house that he hid from his wife.
Herd gradually befriended some of the local homeless population and, together, they created a beautiful landscape that, when seen from above, reveals the haunting image of a tree in the countryside. It’s a stunning achievement that underlines the casual waste and pretension of contemporary society, and Herd had understandably assumed that he’d finally created something grand enough to break him through as a professional artist. A big opening, with potentially national news coverage, was planned, and all of Herd’s hopes effectively blew up in his face when O.J. Simpson decided to take a fateful road trip on the very same day.
The film is clearly meant as a tribute to the toil and dedication of creating art without an audience, and, on those terms, Earthwork is inoffensive and even mildly diverting. Unlike most directors who would reduce the creation of the earthwork to a five-minute montage, Chris Ordal spends quite a bit of time showing Herd and his men doing actual work, and so you’re allowed to grasp the enormity and considerable commitment and pleasure of the undertaking.
But Earthwork is also unforgivably square and pat: Herd’s wife is portrayed as the usual compliant nonentity while the homeless characters are reduced to cutely tortured crazies who exist solely to teach Herd a few obvious lessons about humankind. Even worse, the film seems to miss the glaring satirical implication of the material: that the privileged folks neighboring this polluted lot populated by destitute squatters didn’t give a whit about the obvious poverty and wasted environmental potential until the opportunity to cozy up to a potentially hot new artist presented itself. Earthwork turns a potentially fascinating, infuriating story of failure into a dull, naïve civics lesson. Films like this won’t earn men like Herd the respect they probably deserve.