Given the seasonal vagaries of critical favour and the fickle nature of theatrical distribution, it would be a futile exercise to spend time second guessing why Gus Van Sant’s The Promised Land (2012) failed to make the impression it should have on its UK release last year. Adapted by its stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a short story by Dave Eggers, it’s a timely work with plenty of hidden currents beneath its cosy veneer. The broad plot strokes may initially recall the folksy rhetoric of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983), but Van Sant is more interested in the shades of grey between corporate and community interests.
Damon plays Steve, a salesman for a natural gas giant. He and colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) travel to a rural town to persuade the inhabitants to sell the drilling rights to their properties for vastly inflated prices. The money – desperately needed by the local citizens still suffering from the recession – is initially welcomed until a local teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an environmental worker from out of town (Krasinski) start to campaign against the company’s activities in the area. What’s key in The Promised Land is that Van Sant resists the temptation to deal in facile political pot-shots. There’s a clear sense that the money would be vital for the community, and their decision to take it is not only understandable but completely respectable.
The far-reaching political narratives at work here are not just subtle but finely wrought. The motives for the locals and the gas company are clear, but what Van Sant recognises is that the absence of the government as a necessary intermediary to the two camps is where the damage lies. The locals are the forgotten citizens of America; existing far from the major cities of the two coasts, and caught in an irreversible economic bind. What’s even more impressive is that the film does not make villains out of Steve and Sue. They are people at work, each with the company for their own reasons; the kind of Hawksian notion that’s so commonly absent.
This is not the only time that Van Sant mines the history of American cinema for stylistic and contextual touchpoints; from the folksy Americana of Frank Capra to the fin de siècle nostalgia of The Last Picture Show (1971), The Promised Land is a film that reflects on cinema’s relationship with middle America without once forsaking its own thesis. The final plot turns may expose the grinding narrative cogs a little too much, but Van Sant has fashioned a heartfelt, intelligent film about a subject that demands reason over reckless impulse.