Movie Review: Iowa

Matt Farnsworth’s narrative feature debut, “Iowa” is a bold look at a place film makers fear to tread—the Midwest.  Generally ignored by urban dwellers on the east and west coasts, America’s heartland is making news in a big way with a methamphetamine habit as high as an elephant’s eye. 

As the family farm continues to die a slow death in the wake of mechanized hi-tech agro-business, poverty is becoming more the rule than the exception among the salt of the earth.  “Poor man’s dope” is powerful and cheap and easy to produce.  Its stinky production is favored by the wide open spaces of the Midwest and the ready availability of anhydrous ammonia, one of the main ingredients.  The chemists are bored, smart, teenagers seeing nothing ahead but tedious and demeaning factory work.  Their one time dream of owning their own land and their own business has sank into the mire of the rich getting richer and poor getting stoned.

Farnsworth and his wife Diane Foster play Esper and Donna, two kids without a plan, hoping to use the money from Esper’s father’s insurance policy to start a new life somewhere else.  The fact that they don’t know where they are going or what they will do seems strangely realistic within the “Bonnie and Clyde” framework of the screenplay.  They are on the run even when they walk down the dusty, sleepy streets of Centerville.  When they stumble onto Esper’s dad’s meth lab they think they have a way out.  While a crooked parole officer (Michael T. Weiss) and Esper’s desperate mom (Rosanna Arquette) plot to steal the insurance settlement, Esper and Donna take on the paranoid roles of drug dealers out to make the last big drug deal before the curtain falls.

Farnsworth did not choose either the location or the subject by chance.  The subject of the film follows directly from the die cast by his earlier documentary, “Poor Man’s Dope” featuring the first hand accounts of Amber McNeely who was nearly killed in a meth lab explosion.  The director/screenwriter saw the compelling change that was taking place in his town when he returned for his grandfather’s funeral in 2001.  He knew there was a story stirring in the isolated meth labs and the skeletal remains of humans reduced to lunacy by the corrosive and intensely addictive drug.  The background scenes of the stark Midwest canvas have attracted Farnsworth since his father gave him his first Super-8 camera when he was five.  He actually shot all of the background in digital video on various trips to the region long before principal shooting and his love of the elements in the Midwest shows.  The result is a thoughtfulness and intensity in the background shots that brings to mind the deserted and lonely feeling of films such as the recent “Capote.”  The graininess of the film echoes the dusty and wind-blown hopelessness of the depression-era dustbowls.  Insurance salesman Irv Huffman played by John Savage and Pastor Krause played by John Bliss represent the good that is left in the traditional family values and work ethic of the Midwest.  But they are old and the future does not bode well as their son’s and daughters become increasing disillusioned with life’s limited promise.

A cautionary tale of the horrors of getting rich quick in the drug trade, “Iowa” is compared to Darren Aronofsky’s classic “Requiem For A Dream.”  Although it falls short of the multi-faceted dynamic of “Requiem” this first major work of Farnsworth does an amazing job with far fewer resources.  It is, above all, a love story that raises the human spirit above the weakness of the flesh as in the recently released “Half-Nelson” with Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps and the ultra-indie “On the Outs” with Judy Marte.  The characters of Esper’s trailer-trash mom and her crooked cop boyfriend have a spark of Tarantino in them in spite of the fact that the writer has a ways to go in coming up with consistent sharp and edgy dialogue.  Neither Esper nor his tweaked out lab partner compare to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pooh-Bear in “The Salton Sea.”

A thoroughly grounded effort, the film doesn’t stray into the fantastic as in Asia Argento’s recent “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” based on the book written by the fictitious JT Leroy.  This story and the characters in it are as real as the day is long and faithful to all that is good and bad about growing up with ever shrinking horizons.  Apparently unrated at this point, this film is in solid “R” territory.  Although it doesn’t exploit the violence and sexual excesses that are part of its landscape, it does portray them in unflinching realism.  For mature audiences only.