Sunday, October 13, 2013

Promised Land

The stupidity evident in Gus van Sant’s meretricious and incoherent “Promised Land” is nothing short of staggering. A glossy Hollywood anti-fracking film produced with Saudi Arabian money, the picture is apparently an attempt by Abu Dhabi to torpedo development of the natural gas industry in America. Exactly why people like Dave Eggers, who wrote the screenplay, and Matt Damon, who stars in this thing, would be involved in a mess like this is unclear to me -- at one point in the picture, someone is handed an envelope fat with cash and, one supposes, that Saudi Arabian interests slipped similarly plump wads of greenbacks to the principals involved in the film -- otherwise, the whole enterprise is inexplicable. Matt Damon plays an inept Iowa native hired to persuade a farming community near Davenport to lease their lush and verdant land to a petroleum company so that subterranean hydro-carbon shales can be “fracked” to produce gas and oil. Damon has a sidekick, Francis McDormand in an underwritten and enigmatic role -- her character exists only to give Damon someone to talk to; otherwise, the film would be partly silent and the various tendentious speeches on responsibility and environmental stewardship would be soliloquies. Made by LA stars and west coast film-makers (and shot near Pittsburgh), the film is false in every single respect. Although the action is supposed to taking place within 20 miles of Davenport, Iowa, nothing in the picture seems even remotely Midwestern. Early in the film, someone comments that eastern Iowa, fifteen miles from Davenport, looks “just like Kentucky” -- Damon, I think, says: “Hell, any place fifteen miles from a major city looks just like Kentucky.” But, of course, the hills around Pittsburgh are close to Kentucky and do look like the mountainous regions of that state and so, this dialogue, which seems brittle and clever, is really just a cover for the movie’s geographical confusion and its utterly inept and unconvincing vision of what life is like in the Midwest. Damon comes to the town that he intends to seduce by bus -- apparently, planes don’t fly to Davenport or, indeed, anywhere in Iowa. For some reason, he and McDormand have a rickety SUV that doesn’t start efficiently -- apparently, the film makers think that people in Iowa don’t have good vehicles or can’t afford SUV’s that actually work. In one scene, Damon talks to a farmer while his 10 year old nephew trudges through a field carrying a big shotgun (everyone in the sticks has firearms, of course). In the foreground, the farmer debates environmental issues with Damon while working on a picturesque tractor that looks like it was built about 1942 and would be more suited for an appearance in Dovhenko’s “Earth” than modern Iowa. Everyone is supposedly very poor -- obviously, LA filmmakers and Dave Eggers don’t know the value of farm land nowadays and don’t grasp that humble Iowa peasants currently drive $250,00 computerized GPS-guided combines. A store in the town sitting atop the oil reserve doesn't take credit cards -- newfangled stuff like credit cards that apparently haven’t reached the boondocks. During a school demonstration, John Krasinski, playing an obviously fraudulent environmental activist, lights a big fire in a classroom to make a point -- of course, in real life this would trigger arrests and felony convictions, not taking into account the fire alarms that would undoubtedly be shrieking in protest at this sort of elementary school antics. Damon falls hard for -- you can’t make this up -- a local school-marm and she lives in an ante-bellum mansion complete with miniature goats in the front yard, a rooster crowing at dawn, and a white picket fence. The plot makes no sense at all and the big reveal -- that Krasinski’s character, who is a foil to Damon’s naïve corporate salary-man, is an imposter -- is obvious to any reasonably attentive spectator the moment we learn that the activist’s last name is “Noble.” The climax, predictably involving Damon’s character, biting the hand that feeds him -- he turns heroically on his corporate masters --makes no sense at all. Damon’s speech takes place in the context of some kind of community vote, but we have no idea what the community is voting on and, surely, their plebiscite can’t have any effect on all the private lease contracts that Damon and McDormand have negotiated with the local yokels. The two strands of the story -- one involving community disapproval of fracking and the other showing Damon and McDormand signing people up on leases aren’t convincingly integrated. If everyone has signed oil and gas leases who cares what the community says by way of its vote. This film is not merely poorly made, idiotically written, and patronizing; it’s also a profound insult, apparently bought and paid for with Saudi Arabian money, to the very communities that it is supposed to be celebrating.

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