Movie Review: Promised Land
Timely and topical, PROMISED LAND speaks to your heart; it speaks to your mind; it opens your eyes to “the big environmental picture”; and although honing in on the one issue of fracking as a means to obtain natural gas, it takes all the environmental and energy movies and economically themed movies and brings it all together on one page that connects the dots of life. PROMISED LAND is tacitly and thoughtfully powerful and a “Must See” for everyone.
Right here in Culver City, “fracking” is proving to be a hot bed issue with citizens, the government, lobbying agencies all weighing in. So, what is fracking? In short, fracking is short for the process of hydraulic fracturing underground whereby a mixture of sand, water and chemicals is injected into the ground to release oil or gas. In Culver City, oil is at stake. In PROMISED LAND, it’s gas.
A quiet and thoughtful movie, PROMISED LAND moves at an easy pace that embodies the nature of small town/rural/agricultural Everytown, USA, giving one the opportunity to absorb, reflect and think about the themes presented on screen. It also succinctly lays out the conundrum that faces us all in terms of the economy/money - the American Dream and wanting more for your children than you had - energy issues and particularly fracking - corporate manipulation - core moral values. Director Gus Van Sant and co-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski find the perfect meld of all of these elements with a smartly written script, superb performances and an elegant simplicity with the lensing, framing and lighting of every scene.
Steve is in a dichotomous place, although he may not want to admit it. A salesman for energy conglomerate, Global, his job is to go into impoverished farming communities and other small towns which have “unlimited” supplies of natural gas below the ground surface and essentially buy out each individual landowner, thus saving the communities. With the buy out, the company then comes in and fracks to its heart’s content. But at what cost? To Steve, on the surface himself a company “yes man” - Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies, the company says fracking is safe and therefore it must be. But, there are two schools of thought. Steve is rooted to his grandfather, his farming childhood and the loss of his family's dreams. He wears his grandfather's boots and will never part with them. As the story moves forward, we see how the values and decency of his grandfather and his upbringing are still at his core, yet it is the economic fallout and the pain of losing his roots that pushed him to want to help others from suffering the same fate as his family, and also pushes his ego to get ahead and move up in the company, distancing himself from the poverty his family faced long ago.
At Steve’s side is his colleague, Sue Thomason. First and foremost a mother, Sue is also all business. She is able to compartmentalize business from hearth and home. She is motivated by love for her child and wanting security for him. She only wants to do the job, finish the job, get her paycheck and go back to her pre-teen son who is living in Texas. A mom working to put food on the table and a college education in the future. She treats Steve like her son, mothering him, pushing him to "stay the course" when he faces moments of challenge, such as those that come from Frank Yates.
On the outside, a kindly old science teacher, Yates is, in reality, an MIT genius. With credentials up the whazoo, MIT, Boeing and others, Yates is a respected man. His face shows the weather and wisdom of life. His hands calloused from working his farm and raising pygmy horses while championing education by day in the classroom. In his own quiet calm demeanor, Yates sets the stage for discussion and thought as he explains facts not seen through the rose-colored glasses of corporate greed.
But then there’s Dustin Noble, a seemingly small-time environmentalist who moves and checks Steve and Sue at every turn. And of course, local teacher Alice is the object of affection for both Dustin and Steve.
In addition to co-writing PROMISED LAND with Krasinski, Damon heads the cast. As Steve Butler, Damon at times is like a little boy lost, trying to fill his grandfather’s shoes in more ways than one. Damon is masterful as he spins Steve’s rote speeches and little white lies of monetary manipulation of numbers to the townspeople, the weight of which Damon reflects with his eyes, his posture, his inability to look someone in the eye - like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Climactic scenes and impeccable story structure pitting Steve against the sage wisdom and homespun practicality of Hal Holbrook's character, Frank, push not only the character of Steve, but Damon, to look inside himself for who and what he really is. A final scene in the high school gymnasium is one of the most powerful and poignant of Damon’s career. Anyone who isn't touched by it doesn't have a conscience.
There is on word for Hal Holbrook. Brilliant. As Frank Yates, Holbrook brings us the best of all possible worlds - an understanding of life and the need for people to be educated and understand and think for themselves and to do it in a morally responsible manner. The wisdom that comes with time and age plays a large part here as it metaphorically digs deep into each of us just as the drills dig deep into the earth below. Yates is a wonderful metaphor for things not being what they seem on the surface.
In one of her most enjoyable performances, Frances McDormand is not only fascinating, but slightly humorous as she gives Sue a street-smart business savvy edge yet grounds her in her love for her son. But, McDormand also plays Sue with an edge leading us to believe that Sue may be more than she seems, that she is the puppet master in the pairing of Sue and Steve. Interesting to watch her. Disappointing is that screenwriters Damon and Krazinski chose to dangle a great carrot in front of us with Sue and local store owner Rob and then just drop it with Sue leaving for corporate headquarters in NY. The chemistry between McDormand and Titus Welliver smolders and has you hoping for more development and exploration.
John Krasinski just goes through the roof with exuberance and an Elmer Gantry-like environmental evangelism. As Dustin, Krasinski’s rapid fire speech pattern, the openness of his body language, the "I'm your friend" dialogue and karaoke-ing persona is as much Burt Lancaster as it is Robert Preston's Harold Hill. And as with any "surprise" visitor to a town like this, some fall in line like sheep and others take a closer look. But at no time do you not like Dustin Noble. Explosive is a motel parking lot scene between Dustin and Steve. In it, Krasinski is on fire with emotion and summation of corporate profiling.
A banner year for Rosemarie DeWitt, here as Alice she is the perfect metaphor for EveryMan/Woman USA. Bringing an inquisitive yet matter-of-fact practicality and affability to Alice, she serves to allow us to not only see both sides of the coin, but see the value in each side and like aspects of each side; and, in this case, Dustin and Steve serve as the metaphoric coin. Same as what every American faces with evolution and energy change. And DeWitt’s smile just lights up the screen.
The townspeople are true to life. There is no acting. These people are the face of America and it shows with every frame.
Co-written by Damon and Krasinski, the story structure is such that it never forces any opinion on us as an audience. We are allowed to form our own opinions on the subjects. Each diverging opinion is well presented and organically allowed to develop, just as the opinions of us develop with new information, new insight and compels one to investigate further outside the confines of the film. It sparks dialogue, discussion and debate. The script is fluid, free-flowing. Dialogue is used sparingly and much is left to the lingering visuals at which director Van Sant is so adept. Personally, I would be tossing this script into the mix as a potential Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee. Its simplicity and subtlety are some of its greatest hallmarks. Each and every character in this film is likeable. Each is so well crafted and nurtured. Each resonates within us. You can understand the positions of each individual and their reasons for them thanks to kernels of background placed within the dialogue that reveal themselves as the movie progresses, much like a seedling rising from the earth to reach for the sun. And, of course, there are twists and turns that mimic the fracking controversy itself.
One thing that is pure genius is a sequence depicting Dustin in Alice’s classroom. Talk about BRILLIANCE in explaining and visually demonstrating the concept of fracking and its potential dangers. This one sequence should be packaged for environmental teaching in elementary school classrooms across the country. Exceptional well done visual storytelling.
Not to say there aren’t some holes in the script - a big one being the staging of a County Fair. Sure, Steve gets a great idea to have a fair, but even in those areas, you don't just see a spot of land and start digging holes and building carnival booths and pig runs. Nothing led up to his getting permission for land use, etc. That disturbed me, given the great lengths gone to throughout the rest of the film stressing contracts and documentation.
One of Gus Van Sant's greatest gifts as a director is knowing when to let a shot linger and let it tell the story. Much of PROMISED LAND is just that and as mentioned above, allows for the audience to absorb the film, to allow the actors to absorb and organically respond to each other, and to understand what's at stake and to connect with the characters on screen.
Technically exciting is that Van Sant and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot on 35mm film and didn't go digital, especially in light of their shooting on location in the rolling farmlands of Apollo and Avonmore, Pennsylvania. Thanks to their use of a film pulp processing technique, the natural beauty of the farmlands stays just that - natural - with a perfect balance of color and softness, something that would have had too sharp an edge had they shot digitally. The result leaves you feeling as if you could reach out and touch the grass, the barns, the cows, the horses. Great physical and emotional truth in these visuals. Interiors are warm, small and homey with the expansiveness of a "big world with big possibilities" relegated to the "wide open spaces". And of course, key is also the perfect locations chosen for this film. Authenticity always proves better with a film like this. Celebratory is that while the visuals are a constant reminder to us of a kinder gentler time, we see the harshness of time and the toll life has taken, and a constant reminded of the beauty and history that could be lost through "progress."
Talk about an extremely pleasant surprise - Danny Elfman's score. Lately, Elfman's scores have taken a new turn, they have a new lightness and I for one, love it. Here, the score is so subtle there are times one forgets it’s there, yet one feels buoyed by it throughout the film. And hell yes! Wanna capture America? What better way than a karaoke sing-along to Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" from, of course, his "Born In the USA" album.
All the promise that we saw in Matt Damon with his writing of "Good Will Hunting" with Ben Affleck is more than achieved here with John Krasinski and PROMISED LAND. And while PROMISED LAND doesn’t give us any answers (nor is it meant to), it opens dialogue, sets the stage with basic facts and embraces the challenges that we as a nation, as a planet, as individuals face from an environmental, evolutionary and human standpoint, all through the eyes of this relatable and tangible microcosm. PROMISED LAND delivers the promise of a future if we just open our hearts and minds.
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary DeWitt