The movies never get the Midwest right. When, onscreen, have you seen white people at the grocery store mouth that shy, apologetic “oop” noise every time someone walks close enough that they feel they must shift out of the way? Or a father lecturing his children about the greatness of the place even as it’s clear — from the scrape in his voice, from the way he echoes the pandering language of politicians and country-music radio — that he’s mostly reassuring himself? We get that second scene early in Anne Hamilton’s lyrical heartland horror-thriller, American Fable, where it serves as a promise that the first-time writer-director has mastered her milieu.
In the early Eighties, a farmer and his tomboyish daughter bump along a country road, past the kind of fields that turn up in Reagan’s “Morning in America” ads — but that, in reality, were by then often being foreclosed upon. The girl asks her father why they don’t just go someplace else. The dad’s effort to correct his daughter becomes a raw plea. “We work our tails off, and this is where we’re from and this is where we’ll stay,” he tells her from the driver’s side of his pickup’s bench seat. “Remember that, Gitty. This is the best place on Earth. You know that, right?”
Gitty (Peyton Kennedy), eleven-ish and still alive to the world and its possibilities, seems to understand that he’s really asking her not to pick at the foundational assumptions holding up their lives.
She doesn’t, but American Fable does. The horror comes from the hard choices Gitty’s family must make to keep life going back when America was great — and from her slow discovery of what they’re capable of. Hamilton stages a midnight chase through the corn, a tense encounter in a hayloft, and unsettling dream sequences of a devilish figure bestriding a stallion. But she forgoes jump scares and splashes of gore. What’s scary here: an unlocked gun cabinet; a stranger skirting across the family’s property; glimpses through half-shut doors of parents arguing about money; a woman of wealth speaking to Gitty’s father with surprising familiarity at a fair; the chance that a family’s secrets will come out; the way so many young men believe they can only express themselves through cruelty or violence. The first secret hits right on schedule, deep into the first act. Out on her bike one day, Gitty discovers a man imprisoned in her family’s old silo. He’s a banker, an important man, quick to make Gitty promises of the sort her father won’t: “If there was one thing that you wanted in the whole world, what would it be?” Gitty knows not to free him, but she will grant him favors — he wants books, so she cycles off to the library, as her family doesn’t have books. Gitty doesn’t spend much time wondering why he’s there, or what kind of trouble her father might be in.
Instead, the banker (played with peppery desperation by The West Wing‘s Richard Schiff) becomes for her something like a playmate from another world, a Jewish E.T. teaching her chess and literature rather than magic-finger botany. (The banker’s ancestry never comes up, which feels true to me; the father of one of the Midwesterners I grew up with once told me that he only realized Seinfeld had something to do with Jewishness when an episode took place at a bris — before that, he’d just thought of Jerry as a “funny New Yorker.”)
Hamilton crosses farmer’s-revenge melodrama with coming-of-age reverie and found-a-genie fairy tale, balancing expressive location photography with her cast’s low-key naturalism. The film beguiles more than it thrills, its plotting never quite measuring up to its atmosphere or its suggestions of deeper meanings. In the climactic reel, gunshots shatter the night’s cricket-buzz stillness, but nothing that we see proves shattering, even as Hamilton possibly means it to. Perhaps that’s due to Gitty’s steady, unreadable certainty — our heroine never seems to wonder what’s right or wrong or whether she should stand up to her family’s involvement in a kidnapping. When she’s forced to act, though, she proves hearteningly decisive and courageous.
Hamilton holds close to Gitty’s perspective, but she will pull back, at times, to establish the vast sameness of her world. We peer down at a cornfield that tiny Gitty dashes through, the stalks late-summer tall and bustling as she passes. Hamilton served as an intern on the set of The Tree of Life, and she clearly picked up some visual ideas: Amber tints the daytime shots, a honeyed glaze that seems to come from behind Gitty’s eyes; at night, moonlight edges the blacks to a rich blue, the shadows teeming with potential danger and magic.
That amber and that darkness are captured, literally, in a vignette in which Gitty and other children catch fireflies and confine them to jars, a ritual both exhilarating and tragic. The kids have seized and claimed what’s brilliant in the night, and they will bring it back home to die on their nightstands. What’s more Midwestern than loving most what is already passing?
Written and directed by Anne Hamilton
Opens February 17, IFC Center
Available on demand