January 3, 2013

Natural Gus

by Vadim Rizov

Promised Land

A third of the way through director Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, natural gas company representative Steve Butler (Matt Damon) stands in front of a gigantic American flag and tells the residents of McKinley (fictional flyover country in an unnamed state) that fracking is basically safe and signing over all their land for drilling is the only plausible fiscal stop-gap to the end of agrarian America. Butler's a true believer in what he's selling: growing up in Eldridge, Iowa, he saw how a community's "delusional self mythologizing" as a strong, Real America of "football Fridays, tractor pulls, cow tipping" collapsed when the Caterpillar manufacturing plant closed. Steve knows that these kinds of communities haven't got long to live and sincerely believes any anti-fracking information is just so much stoner hippie propaganda.

What's this shot of Damon and flag supposed to signify, precisely? The most obvious meaning is that the flag's a symbol of a tarnished nation unable to live up to its goals (prompting the overwrought to write "Amerika" instead) and the fracking pitch is built on an equally flawed foundation. Or it could imply the oft-expressed idea that (per Calvin Coolidge's famous formulation) "the business of America is business"—surely a double-edged sword. Or it could mean that we've put business before country, literally, making it impossible to see the greater national good because of the constant hustle taking place front and center. The problem with all of these possibilities is that they're equally facile variants on various liberal talking points. So too this film.

Promised Land

Steve's come to town to get the citizens to sign over all of their land; between the first and second town meetings, he slowly sees the environmentalist light. His activist opponent is named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), because it's that kind of movie; his other antagonist is Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook, trembling bravely for his Oscar). Steve's back-up is Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), and his romantic interest is Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, doing her Cheshire Cat grin thing). Aside from Dustin, all these characters serve the same function: to constantly reassure Steve that he's a good guy regardless of who he works for. When they aren't repeating the sentiment, he's saying it himself pre-emptively, as if his Good Will Hunting costar Robin Williams were still on hand to tell him it's not his fault over and over; it makes you wish someone would lose their temper and call him an asshole.

Promised Land's overall premise isn't just to demonstrate a corporate pawn's crisis of conscience as he realizes the case against fracking is more extreme than he'd been led to believe. The thesis is effectively the same as the question motivating political best-seller What's the Matter with Kansas?: why do the rural, disenfranchised and impoverished often vote against their own best interests (i.e., for the Republican party), thereby making life harder for themselves and everyone else? It's a legitimate question to ask on a macro level, but more than a bit insulting when asked during face-to-face interactions. Though largely shot in Avonmore—a West Pennsylvania community numbering 820 souls during the last census—the state in which McKinley's located remains unnamed, a presumably irrelevant piece of specificity. There's little sense of genuine empathy and more than a little condescension and conflation.

PROMISED LAND's Krasinski, Van Sant, Damon

For an hour, Promised Land entertains while threatening to turn into an unbearable lecture at any minute. Damon and Krasinski's screenplay plays to their familiar strengths: Damon does his irritable, smartest-guy-in-the-room Will Hunting act again, and it remains very entertaining, while Krasinski oozes smarmy but undeniable charm. There's a scene where he wins over the townsfolk by singing Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," complete with pulling a Courtney Cox equivalent out of the crowd; it's a crowd-pleaser, and it's impossible not to suspect that the real Krasinski's been doing this in real life for years.

Van Sant showboats when enabled. The second shot is a choreographic marvel: the camera's planted in the middle of a dining room, panning left to right as it follows Damon returning to his business lunch table. At one point, a tablecloth is flung up and out, taking up the left side of the screen just as the camera's moving away, pointless but pleasing virtuosity. During rote conversations, the camera will distractedly drift between two faces, lingering in the space between—a Van Sant tic, as is another typically well-composed view of Damon and McDormand in a car, viewed from the outside, with mud splatters forming interesting patterns on the windshield. If one definition of auteurism is the practice of separating a directorial signature from the noise generated by subpar material, Promised Land is a dream test case: a Van Sant movie that could be visually identified as such within five shots that's nonetheless pretty largely worthless in the end, collapsing under the weight of its strenuous good intentions.

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Posted by ahillis at January 3, 2013 3:38 PM