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STUDIO: Koch Vision
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
• Two documentaries by dir. Matt Farnsworth.
“It’s Candy, but lost in the midwest!”
Matt Farnsworth, Diane Foster, Rosanna Arquette, John Savage.
Esper (Farnsworth) and Donna (Foster) are about to come into a load of money. $200,000 worth of it, thanks to the insurance policy of Esper’s dearly-departed dad. While investigating his dad’s possessions, Esper uncovers a little meth lab. What else to do with a meth lab but sample the wares, right? Soon enough, Esper and Donna are on the high road to Junkytown. While they bide their time there, Esper’s desperate mother hatches a plan to steal Esper’s inheritance, even if it means murdering her son.
Oh, wow. I’ve been way off.
Crystal meth hasn’t quite hit the big time in cinema-land, yet. Cocaine has been around for a while, and had a few movies obsessed with it. It’s the go-to drug. Heroin has been getting some decent exposure in the last few years. It’s a feisty little up-and-comer. But crystal meth? It’s not glamorous. According to director Matt Farnsworth, it’s the poor man’s dope. You can make a batch using chemicals from your friendly local department store. You can also accidentally blow up your house during its manufacture, but it seems like a risk plenty of people are willing to take.
There’s no high life associated with meth. It’s not something an anti-hero doses on before heading into the climax of the movie. Farnsworth underscores the blue-collar market of the drug by setting his story in rural Iowa. The closest brush with glamor is at the bowling alley; the big time dreams of the protagonists center around fleeing to Mexico. Meth puts users on a downward trajectory, so Farnsworth’s choice in setting is particularly compelling, showing that even the down-and-out have a fair way to fall before they even notice the bottom dropping out.
Surprisingly little competition for this vanity plate.
The fiction here isn’t far from fact, generally speaking. Farnsworth’s directorial credits in addition to Iowa include a pair of documentaries about meth, one focused entirely on how it impacts small, poor communities. The culture, the effects of the drug use, and the malaise the hangs over the town and characters of Iowa are thus entirely believable. But there’s a big gap in between portraying reality and creating a fiction which carries its own impact, distinct from that of a documentary.
Farnsworth approaches that gap with an unsubtle, but effective and stylish touch. He employs the now-common rapid montage to convey the disconnect and compressed time experienced by a drug user. He also makes frequent use of merging fantasy and reality through desaturated colors and attention-grabbing camera filters. None of it is new to film vocabulary, but it is plenty articulate. In his confident, but not overwhelming, use of these methods he puts me in mind of my first encounter with John Cameron Mitchell.
Prerequisite for Batching: G.E.D or greater.
I’m happy to say that, like Mitchell, Farnsworth has an equivalent amount of substance to prop up his style. At its heart, Iowa is a simple love story. Picture a line, with Farnsworth’s Esper at one end and Diane Foster’s Donna at the other. They’re moving toward each other at the beginning of the story, maybe not at the rate or with the purity that Donna’s father might like, but they’re growing closer together, nonetheless. Then, right at the center of the line, the dope appears. Donna and Esper both rush toward the dope, toward how it makes them feel, toward the opportunities they can imagine might come from dealing it.
Now, no matter how close they come to each other, how deeply connected they become emotionally, how far their maturity develops they will never reach a complete closeness Dope has brought them together at the same time that it has come between them. It’s a common tragedy, but I admire Farnsworth for making something so common resonate so well, through understated performances and careful dialogue.
OK, I’ve been doing this all wrong, too.
There’s a subplot, though, which doesn’t seem to contribute as much to the depth of the story. It involves Esper’s greedy mother and her lover, a crooked cop named Larry. Larry and mom conspire to get the $200,000 inheritance that Esper is due. Their plans are only kind of half-revealed to the audience, and the way each part of the plan integrates into the whole is left kind of up to interpretation. In addition to be kept at arm’s length from the audience’s understanding, the plt itself seems a bit farfetched in that Coen Brothers sense of the involved characters possessing sinister layers uncommon in anyone who doesn’t happen to be possessed by Satan.
It works for the Coens, because the fictional frameworks are built to support that sort of character; here, in Iowa, the world that Farnsworth builds is much more delicate, much more human. Less Satan-y.
Licking a finger?
Or smoking a bamboo cigar?
Even the subplot offers a little something toward the end, though, By the time the third act begins, the rug has been pulled out from under every last person in this sparsely-populated place. As the characters land, their relationships are torn apart, violently. Though the actions of the third act are predictable, the particular expressions of the characters’ emotions — the ones who matter, anyway — show Farnsworth’s effort to stitch their connections back together. In my opinion, the job is a delicate one, and largely seamless.
Iowa is a perfect case of a simple tale told well. (I’ve got to note that I’m a sucker for these.) It’s daring enough not to fall by the wayside, but not so enthused about its own potential to become distracting, or an ego project. Farnsworth’s talent as writer, director, and even actor are commendable. If this is an example of the serious and brutal application of his ideas, then I look forward to seeing whatever else he might do in the world of fiction.
Both of Matt Farnsworth’s documentary short films on crystal meth abuse are included. “Poor Man’s Dope” is an intimate portrait of a meth junkie named Amber. It’s heartfelt, tragic, and small. “Dying for Meth,” the longer of the two, actually was produced after Iowa and is much broader in scope than either the fiction or “Poor Man’s Dope.” The culmination of five years of research about the meth epidemic throughout poor and middle-class America, it’s heavy on problems and soberingly light on solutions.