Dir:Gus Van Sant
Its easy to see Promised Land just as the trailers promise.Namely as a film about the environmental hazards of drilling for natural gas using a process called fracking ( hydraulic fracturing), that is not as harmless as its made out to be, and placing this neatly in a decaying small town in the agricultural heartland of America. Promised Land works at that level too, but more importantly it is the study of its protagonist Steve Butler, played by Matt Damon.Matt Damon and his co writers John Krasinski and Dave Eggers, have written a role which is ostensibly a corporate salesman for big oil but could easily have been a Wall Street trader coming to terms with the troubling reality of the financial world.
Steve Butler is the study of a man seriously out of depth, he is doing a job that he thought he was good at, but suddenly his modus operandi seems childish and outdated.Matt Damon does not reveal his moral core throughout, he continues to wear the amour of his flannel shirts, that he buys to blend in, before he gets to the job of converting the townspeople to sell out their future.Perhaps he has risen to his level of incompetence, a classic example of the Peter Principle.But in the hands of Gus Van Sant its not just about professionalism.He befriends a charming single woman in a bar, in a town like this its a miracle she exists.He turns his charm on her just like he does with his audience. His favorite trick is walking upto the front yard of a house and asking the kid who may be playing there,”Are you the owner of this place?‘When the confused kid says, “No”, he asks,”Then how come you are doing all the hard work?”.That’s a slam dunk.
But Steve this time has competition, a man more handsome, more charming and apparently smarter arrives out of nowhere, with a bunch of damning photographs which graphically illustrate the nightmare that the residents are about to wreck on themselves.He not only steals the town but also the girl.How Steve will deal with this double whammy is the neat resolution of the film.The resolution exists because filmmaking is a costly enterprise, but as we learn through the course of this film, reality is far more complicated than that.
He has a partner, Sue, played by Frances McDormand, who is the perfect choice for this role.She is tough and business-like and we see her cringe more than once as Steve turns into a bigger and bigger wreck.She is a travelling hockey mom, her sons baseball game is her only silver lining.She manages to remain sane because of this emotional anchor which Steve does not have.The reality of the environment debate is complicated and it needs a scientist to decode, played here by Hal Holbrook, who is able to do a more comprehensive job of using Google to figure it all out.And yet as he and Steve concur,ultimately its all about our consumption pattern that we are not willing to discuss, let alone change.The sad eyes of Halbrook see no hope, only sparks of revolt, which he provides with his research to the residents.
We start off in Promised Land by looking at Jason Bourne and then forget all about him.Perhaps this is part of what Damon was aiming for, to become an actor again rather than a one man action movie franchise.He succeeds to a very large extent.Francis McDormand is surely an American national treasure and her performance here is reason enough to see this film.The cinematography is deliberately fuzzy but maybe the goal is to make a pretty landscape look ugly and grainy, photographing the lush landscape and its wonderful actors in sharp focus would have made it a pretty picture, detracting from its weary tone.
The oeuvre of Gus Van Sant is full of pieces that study the American landscape from an intimate leftwing lens.From Milk which looked at a gay rights activist to Elephant, which quietly observed the Columbine shootings with a docudrama approach, his films try to decode the American ethos. Along the way he makes brave choices like reshooting Psycho shot by shot, a decision for which he has been much vilified, but his reasons for doing so as a serious director were commendable.Cinema is better off with experiments like those, never mind if they fail, or don’t make people happy.
Promised Land remarkably reminds one of Peter Bagdanovich’s classic 1971 film The Last Picture Show in its study of the collapse of the American dream.That film perhaps sets the stage for this one, all the young people have gone away to the city and those that remain must make frightening life choices.Its easy to see the poverty struck town as a microcosm of America and the title as a commentary on the shattered “Great American Dream” (surprisingly not trademarked yet).Mr Van Sant delivers a richly textures film that neatly sidesteps the environment question and places individual choices at its centre.