Having grown up in a rural setting, I can certainly say that the South has been dealt its fair share of disastrous representations throughout film history. From faulty accents, to sociological representations that simply aren’t true, the South is usually dealt a bad hand when it comes to film. With Louisiana recently becoming "the new Toronto," it seems hopeful that we may actually see a new breed of Southern filmmaker step out into the light. Directors Brian White and Christopher S. Thompson, who share writing and directing credits on The Gleaning, hope to become filmmakers who do just that. Although their film shows a lot of room for improvement, who am I to deny them? Showcasing a sensibility that yearns for a return of simplicity in cinema, The Gleaning is a Southern tale that doesn’t delve directly into the world of horror, but it certainly has flirtations with the genre. Keeping things away from such genres, the movie is ultimately a story of murder, alienation and maturity.
Set in the fictional town of Halcyon, Arkansas, our story focuses on a young man named Cody. The new kid in town, Cody dresses all in black and has a haircut best reserved for a Fallout Boy concert instead of the farming community that his family has recently moved into. Despite what his appearance may reflect, Cody is actually a respectful kid who has a great relationship with his widowed mother. He may enjoy heavy metal music, but Cody has had to endure a sudden amount of maturity in the face of his father’s death. Halcyon, however, has not seen many people quite like Cody, and the townsfolk are soon making up numerous rumors about the young man. He has only one friend, and these two have made it a regular habit to dip into a bottle of moonshine. After all, what else could two teens get up to in a town as small as Halcyon? After a big social event in the center of town, Cody is confronted by a big oafish bully who doesn’t take kindly to Cody’s appearance. After Cody applies a quick beating to the young man, he is on his way back home where he tells his mother about the fight. Later that night, the oafish teen, who Cody beat up, takes off with his girlfriend to a make out point somewhere off in the country. When the next morning arrives, it seems that the oaf and his girlfriend have both been found dead. With Cody being one of the last people to come into contact with the recently deceased, he becomes a prime suspect. However, something else disturbingly wrong is brewing in this small Arkansas town, and Cody will have to find out what it is in order to clear his name.
The first thing that I noticed about The Gleaning was the battling it presents between the idealized version of the Southern "simple life" with the idealized artistic and culturally outlandish view of "city life." This is the sort of thing that many Southern teens come into conflict with. I have personally seen this from all areas of the local map. First of all, we have the kids who live out in the boonies that feel like outcasts due to their musical tastes, but the surprising thing that I have run into has been the "hip" kids from the bigger cities who feel trapped due to their residence in the South. There’s a certain inferiority complex built around being a Southerner, due to the majority of our entertainment being derived from Northern entertainers. I have met so many punk rocking youths from New Orleans who have regaled me with their hatred for Louisiana, but in my mind I see very little difference between one big city and the next. The Gleaning does look to magnify this feeling of alienation by taking a Southern goth and placing him in a destination far away from civilization, and for the most part the movie is successful in showcasing this form of internal rejection. The character of Cody, however, is far from the type who feels sorry for himself. He has come to terms with who he is, and instead looks to be liked because of who he is. Unfortunately, the society around him has left him feeling dejected. This, on top of his father having recently passed, helps to create a fairly poignant character, and it is no surprise that young Caleb Keese, who plays Cody, puts in one of the best performances within the film.
Unfortunately the movie seems to rely heavily on genre-film cliches instead of looking for realistic portrayals of southern living. Sweat stains are dominant throughout the film, which seems like something we would see in Mississippi Burning rather than in most real small Southern towns that I have come across. Some sequences, such as the one where the Sheriff’s Deputy is seen addressing the town after the first two young people go missing, are absolutely rife with cinematic cliches. For starters, why would the sheriff even be addressing the town from the back of a pickup truck? In the same scene, I nearly had a heart attack when the requisite gossipy-old-lady character stood up and exclaimed "Well, I’m not one to talk, but…" before going into a gossipy tirade. Before this character even finished her sentence, I had planted my face deep into my hands because I could have told you precisely what she was going to say. Unfortunately, this gossiping character remains a focal point for the film and her catch phrase ("I’m not one to talk, but…") returns multiple times throughout the movie. This sort of walking-talking cliche can only hurt a film, and unfortunately The Gleaning returns to this sort of thing many times throughout the movie.
Despite these issues I have with the originality of some characters, or the overall cheesiness of some others, I have to say that the movie does "look" pretty good. Properly framed and color corrected, The Gleaning is certainly a polished looking independent film. Made on a shoestring budget, the filmmakers do a solid job of stretching their nickels in order to craft a relatively impressive looking feature. With police uniforms and cars, as well as colorful sets and some solid photography, The Gleaning does its best to impress its audience. The movie certainly captures the beauty of the rural South, by showcasing the greenery that naturally surrounds this environment. The set design within the film, which is often the most important aspect of any film in terms of style, can unfortunately be a bit hit or miss throughout the movie. While the set for the church is fairly well done, as it seems fairly realistic (if a bit lacking), there are some other sequences that show off the obviously lacking budget. The worst set in the movie is definitely the "supermarket," which is split directly in half by a green curtain. This is something that I would assume the filmmakers honest couldn’t help, so it is hard to point too many fingers, but the gigantic green curtain running across the set does manage to create some confusion for audience members.
The Gleaning is, at its heart, a very simple attempt to tell a story. Like the small southern characters who inhabit the movie, this is a title that doesn’t look to hypnotize its audience with subtext, but it is not without its complexity. Although I won’t try and convince anyone that it is a Hitchcockian thriller rife with dominating performances, it does manage to entertain at times. I think that these directors have a few things to say about Southern living, and I would be interested to see what they do next. If you want to read more about the film, you can visit the official site at:
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