Economic crisis cinema meets ecology noir in the subdued yet strangely disturbing Gus Van Sant mockudrama, Promised Land. With a title meant as anything but, this quite clandestine corporate crime thriller takes its time unfolding in deliberate, at times exasperating slow motion. As if reserving anxious quiet time for audience introspection about looming critical issues in the present moment.
Matt Damon, who collaborated on the screenplay with co-star John Krasinski, stars in Promised Land as Steve Butler, a salesman in the field for a corporate domestic gas pipeline drilling company. Butler is currently caught between the contradictions of rationalizing the communal small town values of his rural Iowa roots, and the ego fulfillment of a mega-company promotion he’s just received. Owing to his talent for manipulating economic crisis ridden farmers into selling their land for dangerous gas fracking beneath. Which will in turn rescue them from financial doom, but ultimately ruin the farmland and spread disease and death among the animals and human inhabitants.
Along for the ride on their latest assignment in coaxing a town of vulnerable Pennsylvania farmers to essentially do the wrong thing, is Butler’s manic corporate partner in crime, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). Less driven than Butler to corral the locals as a personal career advancement move, Thomason is a working mom with her own financial issues, and substantially focused on feeding her family instead.
And there is little resistance to this Faustian bargain in progress. Which is vocalized most prominently but barely heeded – in dire warnings conjuring repercussions as looming inconvenient truths – on the part of respected retired school teacher and trained scientist, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). That is, until the worst nightmare of the corporate energy business turns up – an ecological-minded activist. Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) appears to be an unusual sort of environmental protester, a one man nomadic operation following fracking sales reps like Butler and Thomason around the country, to expose the harm they pose to the populations they are targeting. And with his youthful passion and perseverance for environmental causes, Butler faces a formidable adversary.
Promised Land, with its multiple ironic meanings pertaining as well to the absence of guarantees under the dominance of a fragile and frequently fraudulent economy, may frustrate audiences with its conception as much as a mirror as movie screen. And sidestepping any Hollywood happy endings in favor of sobering audience reflections on the way things are, and don’t necessarily have to be. In other words for a change in the way dramatic features are made – we direct, you decide.