If “Abundant Acreage Available” didn’t have closeups or outdoor scenes, it could have been filmed theater. Writer-director Angus MacLachlan’s second feature focuses on grown siblings Tracy (Amy Ryan) and Jesse (Terry Kinney) in the immediate aftermath of their father’s death. Stuck with his expansive farmland, they’re unsure what to do next, until the arrival of three older men who knew the deceased stake a claim to it. Set in a single location with a cast of five, the movie offers a lesson in minimalist drama, unfolding as a sharply acted mood piece that never crescendos, but hums along with wise observations and first-rate performances.
A intergenerational family drama that wouldn’t look out of place in the oeuvres of Tennessee Miller or Arthur Miller, “Abundant Acreage Available” is a noticeably more somber work for MacLachlan, whose directorial debut “Goodbye to All That” was a vulgar black comedy about overcoming divorce. In this case, the familial breach is a subtler form, one that toys with psychological thriller territory before doubling back to become something more introspective and sad.
Just as they finish burying their father on the property and parting ways, Tracy and Jesse discover a tent on their property filled with a trio of bumbling siblings. Their leader, Hans (Max Gail), explains to Jesse and Tracy that his father sold the land to their late parent decades ago, and initially claims that they returned to the property for innocent purposes. But the mystery lingers, as do the intentions of the other men — Tom (Francis Guinan), who suffered a stroke years ago and has been reduced to a fountain of vulgar senile rants, and Charles (Steve Coulter), a sweet, affable figure who seems to have spent his entire 58 years at the mercy of his older brothers.
When the men don’t leave right away, the stern Jesse confronts them about their real intentions, and naturally they have other plans involving their relationship to the territory. But while she’s reticent to entertain the possibility of bringing these men further into their lives, Jesse herself remains at the mercy of her older brother, a born-again Christian whose faith leads him to think in broader terms about their responsibility than Jesse is willing to consider.
As he develops a bond with Hans and they begin to plot out a plan for the land, it drives wedge between Jesse and her brother that forces her to confront her own anxieties about an uncertain future. Everyone in “Abundant Acreage Available” is alienated by their grief and, acting on it in different ways, they turn the movie into a meditative overview of emotional possibilities. It’s fascinating to watch Jesse attempt to wrangle herself away from her brother’s purist attitude (“the devil will take any opportunity to get in,” he says) while her subtle desperation implies that on some level she sees the same limited set of options that he does. As the sole woman in the cast, Jesse’s also tasked with pushing back on the reductive assumptions projected onto her, even as she realizes that she can’t dismantle them.
Once the key ingredients of the story have been established, it doesn’t amount to much more than that; at 80 minutes, the movie barely pushes beyond the sense of a smart, well-acted vignette that doesn’t quite justify the heft of a feature. There’s just enough thematic depth there to show serious potential, and more than enough gifted performers to carry the show along. Chief among them is Ryan, the engine of the narrative, who lands her best role since “Gone Baby Gone” more than a decade ago. As Jamie, she projects a tough, cold exterior to hide the isolation she feels in a world that has passed her by, and her shifty-eyed looks singlehandedly carry much of the movie. She’s complimented by the rustic visuals (thanks to cinematographer Andrew Reed, a regular of Aaron Katz’s movies) that magnify the insular nature of the drama.
No matter the limitations of the movie, its focus on understatement and missed opportunities are cornerstones of MacLachlan’s talent (he also wrote “Junebug”). Above all else, “Abundant Acreage Available” is a mood piece told in revealing glances, about the possibilities of big changes, and the fears they can evoke. It concludes on a contemplative note, somewhere in the vicinity of a happy ending, suggesting that nobody really changes as much as they want — and accepting that fact can be both beautiful and tragic at once.
“Abundant Acreage Available” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.