Empty Acre, The (2006)

 (click for larger image)Starring Jennifer Plas, John Wilson, Ari Bavel, Robert Paisley

Written and Directed by Patrick Rea

Formulating a review for The Empty Acre has been a tough challenge. The first and last 20 minutes show true promise and flashes of near brilliance. It’s that hour in-between that just about kills things. It’s one of those films whose rating makes it seem not entirely worth checking out, but if you can stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with a few real chills, a relatively original spin on the old body-snatching scenario, and some very worthy performances.

I went into watching The Empty Acre with no idea whatsoever what it was about other than what writer/director Rea’s email told me. He wrote, “It’s slow and creepy, set on a farm in Kansas,” and also warned me that it has no gore. I was more than game — gore is certainly not a prerequisite for this woman, but little did I know how really slooooooooow Rea’s “slow” is. But out of the myriad shots of the cracked dirt surface of a Kansas farm and the main characters pensively contemplating this or that, a neat little tale of mysterious abductions emerges.

We’re first introduced to Jacob and Beth Nance (Wilson and Plas, respectively) through a series of videos shot over the course of their relationship. They are an outwardly happy, loving couple who have recently had a baby, Michael. But something’s rotten in Kansas. People are missing, cows are dying, and there’s a large plot of land that’s turned brown and barren. Not only that, but Jacob and Beth aren’t getting along so well nowadays. He’s sexually frustrated and controlling, and she’s getting bitchier by the day, happier to read Alice in Wonderland for the third time rather than deal with her husband. Dark shadows move across the farm menacingly, and time advances at a snail’s pace. An enigmatic drifter type (Paisley) turns up, making a connection with Beth. And then for a good chunk of the film, nothing much happens aside from some mundane events involving our not-so-happy twosome and the introduction of an assortment of individuals who don’t have much impact on anything. Finally, just when the wait seems unbearable, we get some activity. More shadows appear in the fields (at times resembling the eerie black smoke on Lost), waft across the Nances’ windows, and take Michael away.

Now things are getting interesting, but once again The Empty Acre stalls under the weight of all of its filler. At least 20 minutes could be cut with no harm whatsoever to the storyline. As beautifully filmed as it is, seriously, how many times can we be expected to see the same basic scene over and over? We get that Jacob’s a jerk and Beth has dreams about her lost baby. We understand that acre is really empty. Move along and advance the narrative already. I’m as big a fan of atmosphere and character development as the next gal, but The Empty Acre is in need of some major editing. What it gets 100% right, though, is its sound design. Ambient noises and extended music notes lend precisely the right mood and tone. Further, Rea obviously has a good eye and frames his shots well. His actors perform admirably, especially Plas and Paisley during their scenes together.

 (click for larger image)Beth begins to hear Michael crying from under the ground, and it isn’t long before her sanity is called into question. Jacob starts spending even more time at the local bar, further distancing himself from his distraught wife. And Phillip, the stranger, turns out to be the son of the Nances’ neighbors whose reappearance is somehow tied in to the numerous disappearances afflicting the area. My feelings about the main characters went back and forth. Most of the time they are rather unlikable, but at the end of the film it’s clear they are simply victims of their circumstances, earning my pity. Speaking of the end, by the time the big reveal was, for lack of a better word, revealed, I was getting so bored and restless that I almost didn’t care. But that’s a pretty big “almost.” Rea managed to regain my attention for the final segment of The Empty Acre and redeemed himself for taking up so much time with a story that threatened to leave a fairly negative impression on me. Instead, the explanation of what had happened to Phillip and was now happening to Jacob, Beth, and the other townsfolk left me feeling quite content. It gave the film a nice Matrix-y vibe without all the overblown special effects and oh so deep Oracle/Architect mumbo jumbo. It was believable that something like this could occur — and not just in Kansas!

The Empty Acre is listed on the IMDB as being in post-production, so there’s the possibility that some of its flaws and pacing problems can be remedied prior to its official release. But if not, it still stands as a bright spot in the indie horror scene. Dark endings like that of The Empty Acre always make me feel reassured about the future of genre filmmaking, and while the psychological, headsy nature of the tale would have been better served by a tightened up script and abbreviated runtime, I have high hopes for Patrick Rea’s next project. While his ambition may have over-reached the end result this time, he shows all the signs of someone who has great potential and could easily become a force to be reckoned with in the future — especially if he finds an editor with a sharp pair of scissors.

2 1/2 out of 5

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