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.


Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – Wes Anderson


Wes Anderson is so consistent.  If his style weren’t so quirky and likeable, I would say he was in danger of becoming a caricature of himself.

Setting: A small New England island in the 1960’s.  Synopsis: Two pre-teens—Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphaned khaki scout; and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a troubled schoolgirl—fall in love and decide to elope.  Their disappearance prompts the formation of a search party, consisting of the rest of the khaki scouts, Suzy’s parents, and the chief of police.  Wacky, Wes Anderson-style high jinks ensue.

For me, this film had a lot going for it right away because of the cast alone.  Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Edward Norton are all actors who can pretty much do no wrong in my book.  Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman are also favorites.  Bruce Willis, I am neutral towards you, but you did a great job in the film as well.

Overall, this movie was sweet.  We see in a montage of clips of Sam and Suzy’s letters back and forth that they are both social outcasts of sorts.  Suzy goes “beserk” sometimes and loses her temper at her parents, her teachers, her fellow students.  She is upset because she has found a book entitled Dealing With The Troubled Child hidden on top of the refrigerator in her house.  Sam has been asked not to return to his foster home because he is too difficult to look after, and he is the least popular khaki scout “by a significant margin,” according to the Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).  It is heartwarming that these two lonely kids have found each other and fallen in love, and there is something enchantingly sincere (albeit odd) about their interactions together when they are alone.  Sam makes Suzy earrings out of fishhooks and dead beetles, and they pierce her ears with them.  Suzy reads aloud to Sam from her favorite books until he falls asleep.  They have found a sort of haven with each other in a world where no one else particularly likes them.

At the same time, there is a certain darkness to this film that is hard to identify but hard to ignore.  First of all, there is a bizarre theme of violence that makes an appearance every once in a while.  When the Scout Master Ward rounds up the other scouts to form a search party for Sam, one of the boys asks if they are allowed to use force to bring him back.  The answer is no, but the boys still bring a variety of weapons, including a bow and arrow, a BB gun, and a very alarming homemade club with sharp nails sticking out of the end.  (YIKES, I could barely look at it, please do not hit me with that.)  When the scouts and the two runaways finally come face to face, Suzy stabs a scout with her lefty scissors, and the scouts’ dog Snoopy is a casualty of war.  “I guess I do go beserk sometimes,” Suzy says.  Ha ha, but oh my god!

These kids are constantly in physical peril throughout the film.  At several points, angry groups of scouts chase them around.  There is a lot of play with lighting, and I have to say that I kept worrying Anderson would insert some deus ex machina and have them all killed in the storm.  This weird sense of peril and violence served to undercut the sweetness of the story, making Sam and Suzy’s successful escape literally a matter of life or death.


I thought Suzy’s character was fascinating.  I didn’t find her particularly likeable.  She is completely stoic, even when she is alone with Sam, and there seems to be a sadness to her and a desire to grow up and escape her hateful childhood.  Specifically, I found her to be very sexual for her age.  She wears a good deal of make-up throughout the film, and she lies seductively on her side in her underwear so that Sam can paint her.  When the two slow-dance in their underwear on the beach, Suzy asks Sam if he knows how to French kiss, and she explains to him how it’s done.  She then tells him to put his hands on her chest.  There is a sense of her acute awareness of sexuality, both in achieving it herself (initiating the canoodling with Sam) and in perceiving it going on around her.  She is the only person who notices that her mother (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and she shamelessly calls her out on it.

Suzy’s solemnity, thus, is mirrored in the behavior of the adults around her.  Her mother is not happy either—she also desires an escape from her life, and tries to find that escape in her affair.  Suzy’s father (Bill Murray) is vaguely suspicious of his wife’s infidelity, but he does not seem to know how to act on those suspicions.  The behavior of the adults, in a way, validates the behavior of Sam and Suzy.  The film does not treat these children like children.  Their feelings and their choices seem very adult, and their sadness and loneliness pervades the entire film.

In the climactic scene, Suzy and Sam stand on the steeple of the church in the rain, planning to jump into the flooded graveyard below and to swim to freedom.  Sam tells Suzy that he doesn’t have his life preserver.  I expected Suzy to tell him that she will help him swim, but instead she tells him that if the water is shallow they will break their necks anyway, so it does not matter.  Sam says that in case this is a suicide, thanks for marrying me.  They prepare to jump.  Luckily, the young lovers do not succeed, but there is still something dark and upsetting about watching two young kids about to jump to their deaths, even if it is mostly by accident.  (Another “ha ha but oh my god” moment.)

I think there is more to this film than just a sweet love story.  Anderson has really perfected the art of creating microcosms, and in the microcosm of this little island we are able to see the details of the characters’ lives.  Some of those details are sad, and some of that sadness is not resolved.  Luckily, the Wes Anderson quirkiness is able to make that melancholy easy to swallow, so you leave the theater feeling thoughtful and hipster-fabulous.