Skip to main content

We have nothing left to sell. And we can't afford to buy anything.

Promised Land
(2012)

(SPOILERS) Matt Damon’s would-be directorial debut finished up helmed by old pal Gus Van Sant. Scheduling conflicts got the better of the man who was Bourne. It’s easy to see why Damon wanted in; he co-wrote the script with co-star John Krasinski, and this is the kind of socially conscious fare Matt and buddy George Clooney have a yen for. Politically alert entertainments that raise issues and provoke the audience, however gently. Both have in mind the cinema of the ‘70s, but ultimately Promised Land is just to damn nice and well meaning to get under the skin. Like it’s lead actor, then. It takes a subject the public are fairly unequivocally adversarial towards, the fracking industry – certainly to the extent that few have any illusions over its environmental side effects – and manages to divest itself of a position; of any semblance of anger or righteousness. The movie comes from such an “understand all sides’ place (including that of big business) that in the end all it can do is shrug and mumble something about personal convictions. Krasinski and Damon overtly acknowledge that’s the age we live in (one character’s mantra is “It’s just a job”), so they only have themselves to blame. It should be no surprise that their resolutely unassuming movie failed to find an audience.


Whether or not that’s a result of pre-empting criticisms from the energy industry is a question for Damon and Krasinski. It’s certainly disingenuous to be surprised that a discrediting campaign started even before the picture’s release; this is exactly the sort of thing the picture’s salesman are in the business of encouraging. The Wiki page for the film even devotes a sub-heading to the suggestion Damon et co were somehow insidiously in cahoots with the Machiavellian machinations of the United Arab Emirates (which part financed the film, even though this only occurred after Warner Bros put it in turnaround) as part of a plot to mire the US’s natural gas industry. Okay…  They should probably have read the screenplay before investing, in that case.  The screenwriting duo utilised a storyline from David Eggers, and Krasinski has said (no doubt in part to distract those claiming he’s out to get the frackers) their original idea was to use wind power. That might have been more interesting in some respects, given the vocal lobby against wind farms cite reasons varying from the aesthetic to its subsidisation, but it leaves an empty hole where juicy plot elements like environmental disaster and conspiracy might be found (one could argue about the effect on certain species of birds, or the noise disruption, but it isn’t really compelling).


Damon’s Steve Butler is a hotshot employee of Global Crosspower Solutions, a hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) company, one who has a strong track record for convincing landowners to sell drilling rights on their land. He thinks he’s doing a good thing, coming from a small Iowa farm community himself (“I’m not selling them natural gas. I’m selling them the only way they have to get back,” he pronounces earnestly).  So he and partner Sue (the ever marvellous Frances McDormand) travel to the Pennsylvania community where they expect the sale to be a piece of cake. It proves otherwise, not least because of the galvanising effect of local teacher and engineering PhD Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who is able to cut through Steve’s rehearsed bullshit. Things only get worse when environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) arrives with tales and photos of the dead cows from fracking back home in Nebraska.


The twist that Noble also works for Global is a rather good one, in and of itself; he’s a plant whose involvement suggests the type of conspiratorial subterfuge required of a decent ‘70s thriller. But Krasinski has little edge, and serves to emphasise how light this confection is. And the writers wilfully fudge any chance to polemicise. This isn’t about whether Global are or aren’t deceiving good-hearted salt-of-the-earth folk over the effects of fracking. It’s about how they lied to Steve and used him for their own ends. Which is basically what he’s been doing to the simple townsfolk all along.


Steve is intended as a well-meaning “good guy”, the type we’ve seen essayed by James Stewart or Robert Redford in previous decades. Yet here it’s difficult to swallow his innocence. He’s supposed to be well versed in fracking lore and counter-arguments, yet he’s shocked when actual evidence of environmental hazard is suggested? It’s not the capacity to deceive oneself that is difficult to digest; Steve’s sincerity contrasts effectively enough with the meat hook realities voiced by Sue (she isn’t going to lose her job for anything as noble as principles; she has a child to support).  It’s that he should surely have experienced this crisis of confidence much sooner if he was going to at all. And when it comes down to it, his disavowal of Global is of the most tepid kind. He pretty much says, “Fracking might be okay, it probably will be in your case”. Obviously, there’s a difference between the character’s view and the actor’s, but you end up thinking this movie has just bottled it.


One has to assume the reluctance to fully embrace an actual opinion is infused in the script’s DNA, though. The principle lecture on the effects of fracking could be viewed as patronsing in the extreme, since it is delivered by way of Noble’s school presentation to a class of juniors. Hey, if kids can understand, surely the cinema audience can too? But more than that, the heart of the picture lies not with the subject matter but the small town ethos it explores. The classic David and Goliath impulse is in there but it becomes more about Steve rediscovering his priorities, as embodied by Holbrook’s assurances that Butler actually is a good guy (this comes up so many times, it suggests the writers themselves are unsure, with only Damon playing Steve to really make it so) and his relationship with Alice (Rosmarie DeWitt).


The areas where I can’t fault Krasinski and Damon are those of character interplay and dialogue. If you leave out the debates, the interactions between the cast have an easy energy, a zip and brio. From Steve and Sue’s playful sparring to Steve and Alice’s flirtatious wit, scene to scene this often highly enjoyable. Damon usually has great chemistry with his co-stars; he’s naturally affable. But with DeWitt, he’s on overdrive. She’s a joy to watch; so smart and quick Steve can only defer to Alice’s superior wisdom. I hope these two appear together again, as they have a great rapport.


Nearly as enjoyable is the maybe-romance between Sue and Rob (Titus Welliver), the deceptively insightful owner of Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas. It’s another case of leaving great performers to do their thing, but it’s backed up by genuinely smart dialogue (“God, I wish I’d thought of that” says Sue on reading the store sign). Lucas Black and Scoot McNairy also make an impression in brief supporting roles. The former might want to think about branching out from hick parts, though.


Damon has a couple of good speech scenes, one of which is a bar monologue where he promotes the efficacy of “Fuck You money” to an unimpressed clientele. He conjures the spectre of the Clooney-esque smooth talking fixer. Yet the awareness of counter arguments to preservation and conservation, the needs of an a energy-thirsty society run amok without the will to find answers (“Yeah, let’s just run everything on rainbows and happy thoughts”), render the movie as a whole faint-hearted. Steve’s final sermon invokes metaphor to a cloying degree, hoping to distract from the matter in hand with sloppy vagueness (“We might be betting more than we think. But this is still our barn”). By doing so, Damon and Krasinski ensure Promised Land doesn’t become part of the solution, but part of the problem. Pervading ambivalence, where the only answer is individual choice because a united stand against the remorseless wheels of capitalism and “progress” is doomed to crumble. I’m glad Damon is making films with an ethical dimension, but he needs to try harder. Elysium is disappointingly trite in conception and execution, while Promise Land, unconsciously I’m sure, manages to suggest any attempt to push back the tide is futile. Better to settle down with a nice girl and forget all about it.


***  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.