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Empty Acre, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/29/07 10:13:05

"A little too empty."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s so much to admire about “The Empty Acre,” yet so little to actually enjoy. As a story, it just doesn’t work at all, and even as the haunting mood piece it wants so very much to be, it winds up too dull and too uninvolving.

The film is the first feature-length work from Kansas-based filmmaker Patrick Rea. Rea’s attempts to craft a solid horror picture entirely within his home state is admirable, and several shots clue us in on his gifts, both as a director and an editor. He has a knack for finding both the quiet chill of a solitary moment and the chaos of multiple-character scenes; one gathering is a collage of small talk and faces that rises well above the typical filmed-at-home low budget thriller. But then we get other scenes that reveal Rea obviously hindered by cramped spaces and local actors, the same sort of hindrances that strike countless aspiring directors all the time.

The problem with “The Empty Acre” is not in Rea’s skills as a director/co-editor, nor is it with the cast (while supporting roles have their weaknesses, the leads are capable enough to carry us through). It’s the screenplay, also by Rea. This is a story that wants to be about unshakable dread, but it’s so sluggish in all the wrong spots and so forceful in its cheap metaphors that it never quite clicks.

Beth (Jennifer Plas) and Jacob (John Wilson) were once a happy, loving couple, until life got in the way, as life has a tendency of doing. They settled down on a farm in Jacob’s hometown, and the stagnation that followed is eating away at their marriage. Jacob spends all his time at the local bar, Beth is stuck at home caring for their baby.

On their farm is a dead patch of land; no matter what Jacob does, he can’t bring it back to life. Ah, but we know it’s something more. At night, you see, a black mist rises from the “empty acre,” travels around town, and swallows people whole. The plot kicks in once the mist takes the couple’s baby. Searches prove fruitless, the stress of the event only tears the couple further apart, and then, one night, Beth swears she can hear the child in the field, crying.

It’s a fine concept muddied by problematic ideas and a lack of focus. Rea plasters his film with horror movie clichés - the abundance of missing persons posters, the mysterious stranger who may or may not be dangerous, the trip to the library to learn more about disappearances that have happened in neighboring states. It all seems to be leading somewhere, but it never quite does. Explanations just hang there, uninspired.

Rea then tries to much to turn everything into strained symbolism, the empty acre reflecting the erosion of the couple’s marriage as well as the decay of small town USA. The film spends too much time reflecting on how the metaphors work without bothering to check if they’re interesting.

As an exercise in unshakable dread, Rea heads in the right direction, but then trickles off, spending too much time on scenes that ultimately don’t matter, or on characters that don’t count, or on repeating spooky moments to make sure that we understand the gimmick of the metaphor. (How many shots of fields and smoke can one movie give us?) “The Empty Acre” wants to be an eerie mood piece, but it never quite clicks, and instead becomes a drab storytelling failure.

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