Promised Land (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
They are the footsoldiers of scorched-earth capitalism. They are predators feeding on poverty, hopelessness, and desperation… and they are feasting in America today. They are traveling salespeople who swoop into dying small towns and buy up the rights to drill for natural gas, promising windfalls in the millions and leaving in their wake landscapes ruined by “fracking,” the process that leaves groundwater contaminated, residents sick, and local environments devastated.
But here’s the thing: Steve Butler (Matt Damon: We Bought a Zoo, Happy Feet) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) are nice people. They’re authentically appealing and truly friendly — they have a comfortable rapport with each other and with all the new friends they make in the town in which they’ve just landed. Sue has a great relationship with her teenaged son, whom she keeps in touch with while on the road via their fun and funky Skype conversations. Steve grew up a farmboy in a small town just like the ones he now gathers into his corporate family, so he knows these people and genuinely appreciates their dreams and their worries. Steve and Sue are not villains.
There’s a surreptitious punch to Promised Land that only begins with the unexpectedness of its apparent premise as it opens. What looks like a straightforward drama that might end up being, perhaps, about the death throes of a small town becomes something much more profound. This isn’t even the standard melodramatic exposé of the latest Hollywood liberal cause du jour, though there’s easily room for such a film, because honestly, how many people actually saw that brutal look at the destructive wrath of fracking, Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary GasLand? At every turn, and via a simple narrative that is so effortless it barely feels constructed at all, nothing here is quite what it seems, and everything is even more than what it is.
Which isn’t to say that Promised Land — beautifully written by Damon and actor John Krasinski, who also appears here, and based on a story by Dave Eggers — is full of twists and surprises. This isn’t that sort of movie. It’s in how the might of this spare story sneaks up on you. It’s in how we slowly start to see that Steve is more conniving than the gosh-darn farmboy he at first appears to be and also more naive than he probably has any right to be… and then in how this still fails to make him a villain, and yet how it does make him (and Sue as well) the modern embodiment of good people who are “only following orders” and so contribute to great evil. It’s in how Steve and Sue plan to throw the town an old-fashioned fair, to counter the influence of Dustin Noble (Krasinski: Big Miracle, Something Borrowed), an environmental activist who is swaying the citizens against them, and we see how the fair is a stinging parody of a way of life that is dying even without fracking. It’s in how we actually like Sue and Steve, and really like all the townspeople they’re manipulating — including Hal Holbrook’s (Water for Elephants, The Majestic) skeptical science teacher and Rosemarie DeWitt’s (A Little Bit of Heaven) cheerful landowner and farmers Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Tim Guinee (Revolution, The Oranges)– and really really like the funny and charming Dustin… and eventually we see that everything everyone is doing and saying, whether they’re for or against drilling for gas, is merely part of a larger charade none of them seem to see. This is all a web of pretense that American dream is not dying, is not perhaps already dead, because the cheap energy that fueled it, both literally and metaphorically, has disappeared. They are clinging to something they don’t even realize is already gone.
Director Gus Van Sant (Restless, Milk) has often made films that are powerfully astute, often in ways far beyond their ostensible surface, but here, with Promised Land, he has given us a film that could well be the one the future looks back on for a portrait of the moment just before the world — or, well, the Western world, at least — finally got the hint that the lives of ease and comfort we’ve been enjoying for the past 75 years or so were about to end. There’s a sense of doom and despair looming over Promised Land, just beyond the view of everyone in it, but we can just about grasp it, if we squint off into the distance. It’s an extremely disconcerting feeling for a film to leave you with.