Dir:Michael Polish. US. 2008. 105 mins.
The visual richness of director Michael Polish’s Manure is so striking that many moviegoers may simply forgive the film’s lack of an equally sumptuous story. After dipping their toes into the Hollywood studio-system with their last effort, The Astronaut Farmer (2007), Michael Polish and his writing-partner brother Mark have returned to their distinctive portraits of forgotten corners of American culture - this time, Midwestern manure salesmen of the 1960s. Unlikely to win over many new converts but boosted by a strong central performance from Billy Bob Thornton, Manure should please fans of the Polish brothers’ gorgeous deadpan surrealism.
The Polish brothers have never been major box-office draws - The Astronaut Farmer was considered to be a major disappointment, yet it’s their highest-grossing film with a worldwide take of $11.1m. Still, they have a devoted cult following, and the presence of Billy Bob Thornton (who was also in The Astronaut Farmer) and Tea Leoni should help drive ticket sales.
When the head of Roses Manure Company dies, his distant daughter Rosemary (Leoni) reluctantly takes over the family business. Guided by ace Roses Manure salesman Patrick Fitzpatrick (Thornton), Rosemary tries to pull the company out of debt, but a fierce new competitor named Jimmy St. James (Kyle MacLachlan) wants to muscle in on their territory and force them out of business.
Recalling the Polish brothers’ Northfork (2003), Manure places the action in the recent American past, emphasising dreamlike imagery over traditional narrative. Cinematographer M. David Mullen, their long-time collaborator, continues to produce new wonders, concocting a hyper-real facsimile of the American heartland that’s rich in open skies and golden-brown sunlight. Production designer Clark Hunter’s elegant corporate offices, roadside diners and romantically dingy hotels are so gorgeous that the characters are sometimes overshadowed by the decor.
Unfortunately, Manure’s outstanding looks can’t fully compensate for a screenplay that focuses on setting up the next bravura set piece rather than developing the characters or story. The film’s humour also relies too heavily on deadpan absurdity as well as constant manure puns. It’s a shame that while the film’s visual strategy is so precisely calibrated, the underlying story feels so slapped together.
Although his character isn’t particularly well drawn, Thornton possesses the right amount of hangdog melancholy to gel with the Polishes’ emotionally opaque approach. While some of his fellow actors try too hard to approximate a straight-laced postwar American persona, Thornton’s salesman is the ultimate working stiff who speaks volumes with the faintest of weary movements.
In the supporting cast, Ed Helms is very droll as one of Patrick’s fellow salesmen, and Kyle MacLachlan plays the film’s smug villain with icy restraint. Still, none of the performances are as memorable as any of the several beautiful images scattered throughout Manure.
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M. David Mullen
Billy Bob Thornton
Pruitt Taylor Vince