[3/25/14: Updated for accuracy and clarity in light of comments from actor/cinematographer Jon Jost.]
2013 // USA // Blake Eckard // November 24, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theatre)
[Full Disclosure: I spoke briefly with director Blake Eckard after the November 24, 2013 screening of Ghosts of Empire Prairie at the St. Louis International Film Festival. I have been an admirer of Eckard's work for some years, and have had intermittent, positive communication with him in the past.]
The rural Missouri of writer-director Blake Eckard’s features is an altogether peculiar realm. The micro-budget filmmaker has a knack for balancing the authentic and the grotesque, such that his works often feel like the spawn of a gritty docudrama and lurid fairy tale. This inimitable talent finds forceful expression in Eckard’s favored setting, the chewed-up plains surrounding his native Stanberry, Missouri. On the one hand, every detail of his films proclaim a hard-bitten intimacy with the peeling barns and sagging roadhouses of the state’s lonely northwest territory. This verisimilitude is a product not only of shoestring on-location shooting, but of a profound understanding of how the spaces and textures of Missouri’s backroads affect human relationships. On the other hand, the filmmaker portrays the region as an almost mythically forsaken land, choked with dying grass, gravel dust, and brown puddles that stink of gasoline. When one is lost in Eckard country, it is difficult to even imagine a world beyond the barbed wire fences and rutted access roads. His films seem to unfold in a kind of Purgatory Americana.
Eckard returns to these environs—part realist, part Plutonic—in his latest feature, Ghosts of Empire Prairie. To a far greater extent than his prior works, Ghosts exemplifies the director’s capable blending of the genuine and the nightmarish. While both elements are present in 2007’s Sinner Come Home and 2011’s Bubba Moon Face, those films decisively favor one or the other. Sinner is a small-town relationship melodrama with a naturalistic bent, while Bubba is an Old Testament tale of perversity and bloodshed. In comparison, Ghosts feels poised on the threshold of the tangible and the legendary. The story’s particulars are firmly rooted in its rural Heartland milieu, but its general outline evinces biblical, Western, and noir influences, as well as a dose of exploitation scuzziness.
Ghosts concerns former rodeo rider Lonnie (Ryan Harper Gray) and his dire homecoming to the go-nowhere town of Empire Prairie. There he easily slides back into the bed of local bartender and ex-flame Dawn (Arianne Martin). He also discovers that his anxious little brother Ted (Frank Mosley) is fraying into oblivion under the pressures of caring for their increasingly enfeebled, alcoholic father, Burel (veteran indie filmmaker Jon Jost). This is about all one can say of the film’s plot without undermining its vital third act revelations, but Ghosts is not as slight as such a succinct description might suggest. It is a portentous yet languid film, comprised not so much of plot points as incidents, each one putting flesh on the characters and the place that birthed them. The result is that Lonnie is perhaps Eckard’s most psychologically slippery protagonist to date: a loathsome, self-absorbed bully who is lacerated by secret agony and justifiable bitterness. To observe him descend back into the lives of his family is to become aware that something will explode eventually. Long before one suspects the nature of Ghosts’ secrets, one senses intuitively that it is building towards something gut-gnawingly awful.
This loose quality to the film’s storytelling is likely due in part to the ad hoc nature of the production. Upon learning that longtime friend and mentor Jost had a window of availability, Eckard reportedly scrambled to assemble several percolating ideas into a screenplay, and then shot the film over the course of a few days. Ghosts is, in a way, Eckard’s Mulholland Drive: a film born of exigencies, assembled from spare parts, and given a form that transcends its raw materials. Although the result feels undeniably kludgey and amorphous, it also boasts a realist intensity that exceeds that of Eckard’s more polished features. The phrase “art from adversity,” often invoked without cause in indie cinema, seems an apt descriptor of Ghosts’ successful formula. The film feels like a disturbing, half-overhead anecdote, rather than a work of fiction crafted for presentation to an audience. Undoubtedly, some of this is due to the film’s look, which is dim and grainy, like security footage broadcast from a distant planet. (The sound, meanwhile, is Ghosts’ most conspicuous formal stumble: too often the dialogue is so muffled that it is difficult to comprehend.) In addition to his role as a performer, Jost also served as Eckard's cinematographer. The collaboration's strengths are particularly evident in several shots where the camera's placement suggests a crusty-eyed hound watching events dully from the corner. These formal elements lend Ghosts a expectant, menacing vibe that is a familiar sensation in Eckard's films.
Eckard is working within a rich tradition of indie filmmakers who have provided scrupulous, nuanced depictions of significant yet neglected aspects of the American experience. These include Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud), Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass, Wendy and Lucy), Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), and from an earlier generation, low-budget Arkansas filmmaker Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Town That Dreaded Sundown). Pierce, who was a kind of redneck Cassavetes, displayed great affection for his adopted Southern home, although it did not dissuade him showing the meanest, ugliest aspects of Dixie life. Eckard has a similar interest in the dark side of rural America—not a cartoonish world of racist sheriffs and menacing hillbillies, but country life as it actually experienced.
In Ghosts, the noxiousness that wafts from Lonnie and his family is not unique to their rotten clan. It permeates the blood and minds of Eckard’s hellish Missouri, turning everything to bile. It is this aspect of the director’s works that lingers the longest: his precise evocation of a nasty stripe of backroads nihilism. The men (and a few women) who populate Eckard's films are frequently anti-social and stunted souls, worn down by hardship and bored dissatisfaction. They don’t have any interests beyond complaining, drinking, and fucking, and the faces they present to the world seem limited to sneering contempt, seething self-pity, and blank, quaking anger. They are people who drink Busch Light in pressboard bars because there are no alternatives, and would snort derisively at the notion of “white privilege”. It’s a strain of rudderless blue collar hostility that is immediately familiar to any Midwesterner who has lived or tarried beyond the suburbs. Eckard’s presentation of this culture is not caricature—as it is in so many films, both Hollywood and indie—but raw, feverish portraiture of the Real America that is alternately sanctified and denigrated in the popular imagination.