I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Hey, it’s 2013! Where are the ‘Best of 2012’ lists around here?” Well, I can’t put mine out yet. Why? Three words: Zero Dark Thirty. Unlike most film critics who’ve already seen the film and put it on their “Best of” lists, I have to wait until the film goes wide like everyone else. And due to some weird awards campaigning strategy, the film won’t go wide until the Oscar nominations go out next Thursday. Bastards.
I can’t in good conscience call my Year in Review complete until Kathryn Bigelow’s latest has been factored in. So in the meantime, let’s talk about Gus Van Sant.
We Portlanders love to claim Gus Van Sant as one of our own, since he’s unquestionably the most famous and successful filmmaker the city has yet produced (unless you count Matt Groening, anyway). Even so, I’m extremely hesitant to jump on the bandwagon and call him a brilliant filmmaker. Yes, he made Good Will Hunting, which is a phenomenal movie, and he’s also got Milk to his credit. Aside from that, however, what has he got? Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? Restless? The ’90s remake of Psycho?
Van Sant’s filmography is an extremely mixed bag. When he’s good, he’s incredible. When he’s bad, he’s one of the most insufferably pretentious auteurs currently working. If you think that’s hyperbole, just try sitting through Gerry without touching the fast forward button once. I dare you.
His latest film is Promised Land, and alarm bells went off in my head every time I saw the trailer for it. A preachy environmental film from a director known for getting his head stuck up his ass, and it’s a Participant Media release? Fucking gag me.
Yes, this film did have Matt Damon, who so famously collaborated with Van Sant on Good Will Hunting to Oscar-winning results. That the two also collaborated on Gerry seems to have slipped everyone’s mind completely. Still, Matt Damon has been on something of a tear lately, so the film was at least likely to feature a sterling lead performance. But then I saw the writing credits.
Back when Damon won a Best Writing Oscar for Hunting, he shared the accolades with co-writer Ben Affleck. The two of them are famously BFFs, with potent chemistry that elevates all of their shared dealings on both sides of the camera. Moreover, Affleck’s career has really taken off over the past few years, with a streak of starring/writing/directing vehicles to prove himself as a powerhouse auteur in his own right.
This time, however, Damon is co-starring/co-writing/co-producing with John Krasinski. With all respect to Mr. Krasinski, I’m pretty sure that’s not an upgrade.
Alas, I’m stuck passing time while waiting for Zero Dark Thirty to hit, and the film’s reception hasn’t been completely negative. As such, I went ahead and saw Promised Land. Imagine my shock to find that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected, though it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.
First off, let’s meet our protagonist. The very first thing we learn about Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is that he grew up in a podunk farming community somewhere in Iowa. He was encouraged to take up agriculture and take over the family farm, but then the nearby factory shut down and the entire town was hollowed out overnight. This incident convinced Steve that the way of life he grew up with is dying. Small rural towns can only exist so long as some corporation is funnelling money into them.
Flash forward a few years. Steve is now working for some company called Global Solutions, which deals in natural gas. Steve’s job is to go to places rich with untapped natural gas, talk to the rural folk who own that land, and convince them to lease the property. Steve is very good at his job, and he’s become famous for closing deals at rock-bottom costs for the company.
The trick is that Steve genuinely believes that Global Solutions is an unfairly maligned force for good. As far as he’s concerned, the company is bringing money to communities that badly need it, especially in these uncertain economic times. This isn’t just about money for some anonymous billionaires in Manhattan, this is about college funds and mortgage payments for the lower-class farmers. Sure, he’s misleading the people somewhat by purchasing their land for a fraction of what they’re actually worth, but even a fraction of that worth is still — as Steve himself so aptly describes it — “fuck you” money.
Anyway, Steve is sent out to yet another farming town in the middle of nowhere. This one is especially vital, we’re told, since taking this town will somehow lead to a domino effect that puts the whole state up for grabs. It looks like a simple open-and-shut case, until the local science teacher (Frank Yates, played by Hal Holbrook) speaks up at a town hall meeting and argues that the matter should be put to a vote.
Steve and his sales partner (Sue Thomason, played by Frances McDormand) are just gearing up for a tough campaign when along comes an environmentalist named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). And that’s when things really start hitting the fan.
From this point, the film is a pretty cut-and-dried conflict between environmentalism and big energy, as personified by Dustin and Steve. That said, the film is very singular in that neither is presented as two-dimensional. They both honestly seem to care about what happens to this town, they both raise a lot of valid points, and neither one is ever portrayed as remotely infallible. It also helps that Steve and Dustin are both very charismatic and intelligent men who one-up and outsmart each other in some nicely clever ways. Moreover, we can’t forget that neither Steve nor Dustin are actually from the town in question, yet they both spend the entire running time trying to pass themselves off as just another one of the locals.
As for Dustin himself, I found it very interesting that he never seems to take any of this personally. Though he absolutely despises Global, he always shows a healthy respect for Steve as one person to another. Compare that to Steve, who can never resist stereotyping his opponent as a granola-munching hippie. On the other hand, there’s always a sense that what we see with Steve is what we get. When he tells his story (and Steve tells his story a whole lotta times in this film), we know that it’s the real deal. With Dustin, we always have to wonder what he’s not telling us. Where did he come from, what’s his agenda, and why did he only show up now?
The conflict between these characters is very entertaining to watch, especially because of these actors. It should go without saying that Matt Damon is incredible, and Krasinski delivers that unique kind of affability, such that I couldn’t tell whether I wanted to like the guy or punch him in the face. I must also admit that their screenplay — their dialogue in particular — is really damned effective. I won’t even get started on the diabolically clever third-act twist.
Still, as I walked out of the theater, I kept feeling like something was missing. I kept asking myself how this film might have been improved. Finally, I came to the conclusion that Damon and Krasinski built a mediocre film around two great characters. Seriously, aside from Steve and Dustin, who else have we got?
There’s Sue, who’s basically the neurotic, sarcastic, dry-witted, ball-busting comic relief you’d expect Frances McDormand to play. Frequent mention is made about her son (Danny Thomason, played by Cain Alexander in all of one scene), though he contributes absolutely nothing to the plot.
There’s Frank Yates, who’s established as this big-shot scientific genius who retired to be a science teacher, though he plays absolutely no vital part in the narrative after the first act. To be entirely honest, I think he was just thrown in so the film could claim Hal Holbrook as a member of its cast.
Veteran character actor Titus Welliver helps advance the plot in his own small way, though his wishy-washy romance arc with Sue was dead on arrival. Ken Strunk also impacts the story as Gerry Richardson, a senior member of the town council, but he’s such a crooked politician that I was grateful he only got a few brief scenes.
Special mention must be given to Lucas Black, who plays such a brainless hick that when he gets his cut of the lease money, he goes out and buys a sports car with it. I expected the film to make a point of this, talking about how the other townsfolk might feel to see this proof of the money Global could bring. Or perhaps the other characters could talk about how foolish he is, spending his new fortune on such frivolities when he and his neighbors are living in worn-down houses. Yet the character is never seen or heard from again.
Still, I think the crowning disappointment goes to Rosemarie DeWitt. She’s delightfully charming in this film and I know for a fact that she’s a supremely underrated talent (seriously, go see Your Sister’s Sister if you haven’t already). Even so, her character arc and her love triangle with Steve and Dustin were both insubstantial and woefully underdone. Such a damn shame.
On the other hand, we have Scoot McNairy. He actually gets the pleasure of two very powerful scenes with Damon, both of which contribute a great deal to the film’s themes. It isn’t much, but at least it’s something.
The point is this: For all the talk about what’s best for the townsfolk, the townsfolk themselves are given surprisingly little screen time. For comparison’s sake, I submit Erin Brockovich. Granted, that film is much more black-and-white about who’s the big bad corporation and who’s the underdog being wronged by them. Even so, I note that film because it took the time to establish the corporation’s alleged victims as characters in themselves. We actually got to see their financial difficulties, their health problems, etc.
In this film, however, we never actually witness any evidence that economics will soon come to wipe this town off the map in the immediate future. Though we meet with a few families, none of them appear to be in any desperate need of money. All told, the town seems to be getting along perfectly fine, which terribly decreases the film’s stakes. Furthermore — when you get right down to it — Steve, Sue, and Dustin are just outsiders who came in out of the blue to use these townsfolk as chess pieces for the advancement of their respective agendas. I’m amazed that no one in the town thought to call them out on that bullshit.
However, let’s take the characters at their word. Let’s say that the risk of a whole town going bankrupt is every bit as real as the risk of getting scorched and/or poisoned by fracking gone awry. Well, then the whole town is screwed no matter what they do. They can take the money and risk someone’s farm going up in flames, or they can keep their pristine land and their crippling poverty. There’s a great deal of risk either way. The film skirts around that issue without ever addressing it directly, and the film is poorer for it.
To conclude, Promised Land suffers for its crippling myopia. The film focuses so much on its two lead characters that it neglects to properly develop the rest of its wonderful cast. The movie is so focused on bringing new and interesting arguments to the fracking debate that all the other issues get left to the wayside. The supporting characters in this film could easily have delivered so much thought-provoking drama while exploring all manner of themes in the face of crushing debt, mortality, environmentalism, responsibility to deceased family members, etc., but all of that potential is utterly wasted.
In the end, I can only say that the movie is watchable. It will easily be worth a rental further down the line, but let’s not kid ourselves and think that this is worth anyone’s time and money so close to the Academy Awards.