Where is this so-called ‘Promised Land’?
Gus Van Sant’s Ode to Small Town America and the Evils of Fracking Doesn’t Quite Hit the Mark
Promised Land is an advocacy film directed by Gus Van Sant (this movie is more Finding Forrester than Gerry for him) off a script by Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story written by Dave Eggers. It wants to start a national conversation about the evils of hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking”. It does this by showing us a story of a corporate ladder climber Steve Butler (Matt Damon) in a large natural gas/oil company who over a few weeks time learns the truth that his company has been downplaying the potential disasters of fracking to turn massive profits.
The poor, broken people in the small town are devastated economically and things are not looking better. When Steve shows up with a contract, a few thousand dollars and promises of future riches, most of the people sign right away. They are desperate.
Not so fast. The story gets complicated by the appearance of a crusty old science teacher/retired engineer (Hal Holbrook) who tries to tell the town that fracking is dangerous while a few of them are gathered in the local high school gymnasium to discuss the issue.
Butler, even though he’s a veteran of this racket, stumbles in response which seems strange, like he’s never faced any resistance to fracking or the mighty oil company before. Here Butler’s partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) jumps in to help spin the story back in their favor. Enter environmental protester Dustin Noble (John Krasinksi) and now the two oil executives have to defeat his ‘lies’ while they win the votes for the town election and buy the rest of the oil leases from the 30% of the people holding out.
There is the obligatory love interest thrown into the story. Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), an elementary school teacher, lives an idyllic life out on the Eden of her deceased parent’s farm. Alice meets Steve at the local watering hole while he’s working the locals. She also meets Dustin at the same bar and then she is faced with a choice between the two.
Well, not really, as late in the film there’s a cynical plot twist which leads Steve to the moment of truth – walk away from his lucrative gig to potentially give a shot to small town living again or suck it up and take the money. Will love triumph over money? What do you think?
There is one large question that needs to asked – what is the “promised land” of the title? Is it the Capra-esque small town of upstanding citizens full of virtue? Is it some time back in America’s golden past, say the Fifties where everyone lived in the suburbs and had done their part to help America win the war and free the world from the fascists?
Is the promised land up ahead in the future, a future where we’ve figured out economic and social justice whereby everyone gets to live the American Dream? The film leaves this hanging out there which must mean the answer is self-evidently buried in our shared notions of American Exceptionalism.
The Norman Rockwell/Sarah Palin small-town ideal is part of American Excpetionalism. The sleepy little town full of the salt of the earth folks who respect hard work, go to church and are solid, upright citizens. The illusion is they are untainted, living in the rolling backlands. It’s funny that the bell-weather of the small town’s affections towards Steve and Sue was how nice Flo is down at the cafe. If she snubs you, you done pissed off the town. No worries though, all you have to do is buy them some little league jerseys, sponsor a fair and they will all love you. Money cures everything, right? This is what life is like in late-stage capitalist ObamAmerica.
“I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start”
- B. Springsteen, Promised Land
For an advocacy film it’s curious there are no green energy options presented or discussed. Well, almost not discussed, as we see Dustin filling up at a gas station which is a little confusing as Steve later just throws it out there that Dustin’s truck runs on used cooking oil, even though we know that is a lie. He says this clearly as a pejorative even though it is in keeping with the fact that the film never broaches any serious discussion of domestic energy policy. Do you hear that Obama? Hollywood is cranking out a lot of films now (see This is 40) that patently do not want change.
This film is definitely in keeping with the current national navel-gazing of the country. It’s resolute in examining the symptoms (poor people need money, poor people have natural gas underneath themselves) without looking into any causes (economic, political, social, moral or spiritual). The biggest elephant in the room is the economic question. Why are these people so poor? Damon’s character laments how the Caterpillar plant closed in Davenport by his small town (shout out to Eldridge, Iowa!). The area was devastated when it closed.
Why? Does the film want to offer up a critique of neoliberalism here? Can we use a Hollywood film to interrogate the ramifications of NAFTA? Not in the slightest. The film wants to pretend that it cares about the small town folks who are hurting. Yes they do confuse the message when one of the townies punches Steve in the nose at the bar although he had a run-in with him earlier and he knew the score of what Steve is doing. The rest of the people in the town are as confused as most Americans – they are hurting, they don’t know who to blame but they need to eat which means they need money. They don’t want to examine the choices in their lives or the things they are sold on the TV, they need money.
Promised Land seems to contend that America is becoming a third-world, raw resource seller because we have nothing else left to sell. Steve even says this in an angry moment in the film: “You need oil, there’s no other choices so either sell it to us or someone else.” No options, nowhere to turn to, so just shut up, take your money and go back to watching TV.
Is this the cynical conclusion to be drawn from the film? It’s all rigged anyway. You have no way to question the ramifications of neoliberalism much less attempt to figure out a more fair and humane way towards the economy. Go find yourself a sweet lady and settle down on her daddy’s farm. Live off the past successes and do not try to figure out any new, productive ways to live.
If this is what passes for a liberal viewpoint in ObamAmerica, we as a country are really in trouble. If Promised Land will be a film that is jeered and snarled at by the Right-Wing Industrial Media Complex then we are truly lost as a country since the film’s assumptions are no different than most of the same ones as Red State America. It’s a cruel reminder that we are trapped by using the same language and strategies that all support Corporate America and their unending quest for ever greater profits.
“We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”
- Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to The Desert of the Real
Side note – even though he’s only in a few scenes, he steals them all – Titus Welliver. This is the dude who helped save Lost in its final season and was a great character on Deadwood. When can he feature in a movie? Let’s hope really soon.