Film: Promised Land
Director: Gus Van Sant
Running Time: 106 min
Year of Release: 2013
“It’s not the land we’re fighting for, it’s the people”. This is the point in contention in ‘Promised Land’, a new collaboration between director Gus Van Sant and actor Matt Damon. This is a film where almost immediately the viewer is pulled into the world of struggling farmers and their families, and into an atmosphere fraught with tension over the commercial discovery of underground natural gas.
Damon portrays Steve Butler who, along with his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), must convince the townsfolk to sign their land over to energy company, Global, for big money. A predatory game ensues in which the fears of the community are juxtaposed with the persisting talks by Global.
Their initial success, however, is jeopardised by senior teacher Frank Yates (Hal Hollbrook) and environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Kransinski, who co-wrote the script with Damon), both of whom oppose the fracking technique of drilling underground.
Van Sant simultaneously exposes, to the townsfolk and audience off screen, the secret information Global has not revealed. That is, that fracking actually results in the chemical poisoning of water supplies, which in turn destroys livestock and land.
Although there has been negative criticism regarding McDormand’s distant, almost cold persona as Sue Thomason, she heightens Butler’s inner turmoil as he mulls over the moral consequences of his job. Also, Van Sant often injects dry humour via McDormand’s character, as she dryly comments on their interactions within the town.
There are memorable moments where these interactions fail, such as when a farmer rips off the price tag on Butler’s new ‘farming vest’, alluding to his inability to blend in. The humour also enhances the authentic feel of the film. Van Sant further achieves such a realistic onscreen atmosphere through his incorporation of hand held camera shots.
The film offers further commentary on the fate of real communities who have had their lives torn apart by preying corporations, who seem to manipulate people in order to access the land they desire to exploit. Throughout the film Butler is quick to insist, especially to his potential love interest Alice (Rosemary Dewitt), that he is not a bad person. And Damon plays him with an earnestness that is at once convincing without being self-righteous.
However, the shifting motivations involving the environmentalist Noble, as he pits himself against Butler, will leave you wondering about what is actually being ‘promised’ by these opposing groups.
Promised Land is now out on DVD.