Promised Land (2013) – Gus Van Sant

ImageThis film was a collaboration by a lot of people I love.  Story by Dave Eggers, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, score by Danny Elfman.  Directed by Gus Van Sant, the love of my life.  I was very excited to see this movie.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for the natural gas company Global Crosspower Solutions.  When he and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small Pennsylvanian farming town, their goal is to convince landowners to grant Global permission to drill for natural gas trapped underground — a process known as fracking.  Steve and Sue are surprised to find members of the community expressing concern about fracking’s environmental ramifications. The situation is aggravated by the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a young representative of an environmental group, determined to stop Global at all costs.

The setup is something we’ve seen before: a grassroots movement pitted against a large, greedy corporation.  This rendition, however, isn’t quite so black and white.  While Dustin presents a compelling argument for a wholesome cause, there is something slightly off about him.  His comments to Steve are a little too snide, and his charismatic rapport with the townspeople seems somehow disingenuous.  Steve, on the other hand, is earnest and likable, despite the fact that he is promoting potentially environmentally unsound plans.  His interest in introducing fracking into the town is sincere, motivated by the financial collapse of his own rural hometown, and — most importantly — right off the bat he is introduced to us as the film’s hero.  We learn to like him, to laugh along with his jokes, to appreciate his friendships, and to root for his romantic pursuits before the fracking conflict even begins.

As a result, the film’s tone is uneasy.  It’s unclear which side of the conflict is the “right” one — which side Van Sant is intending us to root for.  This vague cognitive dissonance is really what makes the film interesting.  Somehow, Van Sant manages to tell a story that is both understated and thrilling.  The pace is slow, but I found myself literally thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”

The cast does much to carry the story.  Krasinski finally breaks out of his Jim Halpert persona to bring a performance that is subtly unsettling.  He uses his “nice guy” identity to his advantage, exaggerating it into a caricature.  McDormand is also, unsurprisingly, wonderful, once again demonstrating her ability to be at once gruff and lovable.  Sue provides comedic relief, as well as a perspective to contrast with Steve’s: while he struggles with the ramifications of what they are doing, she insists that “it’s just a job”.  Her desire to return home to her teenage son is a (slightly under-developed) subplot.

The film wraps up with a twist, which is always fun, although this twist is perhaps a little too extreme.  As an audience we want to feel surprised and exhilarated, not completely bamboozled.  But in the end, the film is satisfying.  The story is rendered in the small scale — a showdown between two men over a small amount of land — but has clear larger relevance.  Perhaps not a particularly optimistic movie, but a certainly creative and interesting examination of the roles individuals play in the larger machine.

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