By Auke van der Veen
Gus Van Sant has directed a very diverse array of movies, but Promised Land lies somewhere between mainstream and alternative, and it’s a job well done. The story deals with two salespeople visiting a rural town in an attempt to buy gas drilling rights from the locals. The process doesn’t go as easy as expected.
In one of the first scenes we see the camera pan over a car driving along a country road, approaching a farm. The shot feels ominous. It’s like watching an action movie: the protagonist is a man with a mission, about to beat the bad guys, and you know he is doing the right thing. Nothing is less true. As colleagues Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, famous from Fargo) drive up to carry out their job, their true goal is simply to make money. Still, Steve is actually convinced that the farmers need the drilling profits. He knows what it is like when a farm goes to ruins: it happened to his grandfather. He firmly believes that the gas money will save the people, and with his persuasive talks he gets many of them to sign a contract, scaring them with stories of loans and poverty.
Of course, there is resistance to these outsiders. In a beautiful scene in which one of the village politicians addresses the community about the drilling plans, an old man named Frank Yates (wonderfully played by veteran actor Hal Holbrook) criticizes the company by giving all kinds of information about environmental damage. Steve enters into a discussion with Frank, but slowly begins to understand that his company isn’t that great after all. Doubt creeps into his life, and his sales pitches begin to sound more and more insecure. This only gets worse when Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, who co-authored the screenplay with Damon), a young, inspiring environmentalist, becomes his enemy, even almost stealing his new near-girlfriend Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).
So far, so good. The story is exciting, the film techniques are more than fine – Van Sant truly has a knack for realistic representations – and especially Damon depicting a man with a fair share of moral doubts is fascinating. However, along the way, the plot takes an unfortunate and incredible turn involving Krasinski, which doesn’t contribute to the ending in any way. It is a shame they put it in, but nonetheless, you should make sure to go see the film and judge for yourself.
Apart from this flaw, the movie stays true to its message and theme: Promised Land is all about choices. The choices of a struggling farming community and the choices of a man who is struggling with himself. In the end, it all boils down to one central question: What is the right thing to do?