In Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, one-time farm kid, now hard-charging sales rep for a nine-billion dollar energy corporation, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) keeps trying to walk away from his small town past but finds himself walking right back into it. Part of his problem may be that he’s wearing heavy symbolism on his feet in the form of his grandfather’s hand-me-down boots which seem to know the way home.
I’m not going to try to snow you. Promised Land is not a great movie.
It’s a likeable movie.
More likeable if you’re a fan of Matt Damon.
Less so if you get annoyed at having your own liberal pieties repeated back at you as if in a sermon by a preacher whose attitude is “Betcha never thought of that before!”
But I am a Matt Damon fan and, as a regular traveler in the liberal blogosophere, I’m used to people telling me what I ought to think about things I already came to their same conclusions about a long time ago, thank you very much.
So I was able to shrug my way through the preachiness, a task made easier by the Matt Damon and co-star John Krasinski’s screenplay’s having a lot of the preaching done by Hal Holbrook, who is, after all, Hal Holbrook---Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln, Senator Hays Stowe, and the narrator from Our Town all rolled into one---and he can make the most fiery and brimstone-heavy sermon sound like good, practical, friendly advice, and sit back and enjoy Damon’s affable, easy-going but focused performance as Steve Butler, a sales rep for a natural gas company looking to lease farms in order to frack the hell out of the shale deposits underneath who comes to the small town of McKinley, Pennsylvania thinking the money he’s offering the folks who live there will be welcomed as manna from heaven only to begin to suspect that he’s the working for the devil out to buy the town’s collective soul.
That little bit of plot synopsis might have reminded you of Local Hero, Bill Forsyth’s totally un-preachy gem about a junior executive at American oil company sent to Scotland to negotiate the purchase of entire town where he comes to suspect, not that he’s out to buy the town’s collective soul but that he has one himself, a soul, that is. And I can see how it would be tempting to compare the two movies. In fact, I’ve seen other reviewers and commenters give into the temptation. I’m tempted myself and I am going to give into it, a little. But in an important way it’s unfair.
Local Hero is a comedy and one with a sharp satirical edge. Promised Land is full of humor, people say funny things and funny things happen, mainly to Matt Damon, but it’s in the vein of “Life isn’t all sorrow and pain and at least we’ve got that to laugh about.” It’s an earnest drama with something to say working its deliberate and wistful way toward an ending that won’t be unambiguously happy but will be full of meaning.
But there’s a way Promised Land could have and should have been more like Local Hero. Forsyth gave the village of Ferness an identity of its own. It’s a particular place inhabited by particular---and peculiar---people, who, even if we don’t get to know them intimately, we can see are busy with lives going on outside the confines of the plot.
Think of the anonymous motorcyclist roaring angrily up and down the narrow streets at all hours. Think of the men on the beach watching the old fisherman painting and then painting out new names on his boat and of the baby with them who seems to belong to all of them and none of them. Think of the faces we glimpse and the conversations we catch snatches of as the camera hops from table to table at the hooley. All clues to lives lived, privately and communally, that taken together give Ferness its peculiar and particular character.
McKinley is generic small town America. We meet only a few individuals and local eccentrics appear to have been banned by a town ordinance. Characters represent interests but not themselves. Steve assumes things about the town's economic situation but we have only his word and our own preconceptions to confirm it. Nobody in town seems to know their own business or their neighbors'. They don't get to tell us in what ways they're hurting or thriving. Nobody talks as if they have lives apart from the plot. Holbrook's character, Frank Yates, is a retired engineer teaching high school science and raising miniature horses but he never gives any of his past and present occupations a thought. Rob (Titus Welliver), the sly-eyed, soft-spoken charmer who runs the general store, Rob’s Gund, Groceries, Guitars, and Guitars, seems curiously detached not just from the town but from his own place of business, as if he seems to be minding the store as a favor to the real owner he expects will be back shortly.
The look, the sounds, and the feel of the town are authentic. We get to know what it's like to stand inside Rob’s but not what it's like to shop there, to have gone in for a loaf of bread and find yourself waiting in line behind people you know buying and paying too much for a week's worth of groceries because they don't have time to make the trip to a larger town with a real supermarket or don't have the money for the gas or to get the truck fixed, stand there and make small talk about the weather while they count out change and decide which items to put pack so they can afford a pack of cigarettes or a lottery ticket or a treat for the kids. Promised Land is supposed to be about people for whom money is a constant worry but it doesn't capture what it's like to live poor. Not necessarily to be poor but to continually not have cash on hand when you need it.
But Rob's appears to have only two regular customers, Steve and his sales partner Sue (Frances McDormand). Things are busier down the road at Buddy's Place, the town watering hole, but while we can feel what it'd be like to sit there at the bar with a drink, there's little sense of who we'd be drinking with, unless, like Steve, we're lucky enough to attract the attention of a pretty and slightly tipsy local grade school teacher. Something similar goes on at the diner where we can practically smell the coffee but can't hear any of the gossip being shared at the counter. It's not as though the people fade into the woodwork. It's more that the camera takes them in with the same interest as it takes in the woodwork. Director Gus Van Sant and his cinematographer love to photograph people in groups, but they rarely pick out individuals and move in for close-ups of their faces.
And this is how Promised Land gets preachy, by replacing individuals with examples. The young mother worried about her child’s future education. The crooked small town politician who sees opportunity to make a fast back off his constituents’ grief. The upright farmer making the case for things in life worth more than money. The shiftless goober instantly spoiled by just the promise of the comparatively little money Steve’s offered him. And, as if they don’t believe we’ll get the point, Damon and Krasinski and Van Sant take us to church for a succession of sermons.
The preaching isn't against fracking, although it's a given that fracking is an ongoing ecological disaster. And it isn't against the evils of corporate capitalism, although it's another given that the corporation Steve works for, Global Crossover Solutions, is greedy, irresponsible, conscience-less, corrupt and corrupting because, after all, it’s a corporation, and if corporations are people, my friend, they are not nice people.
But, like I said, these are givens and Damon and Krasinski and Van Sant don’t spend a lot of time in their pulpits railing against them.
The preaching is in favor of a Frank Capra-esque ideal of small town America.
There's a conservative streak in American liberalism, just as there's a progressive streak in conservatism---the fast fading, old-fashioned brand, not the Right Wing reactionaryism that calls itself conservative---that's brought out by every debate over paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.
In such cases, the conservative argument points out the progressive nature of development, how it will bring in not just money, but jobs and opportunity, how it will increase the tax base, giving localities the means to improve their schools and their infrastructure. Meanwhile, you get liberals arguing for leaving things as they are or even putting them back to the way they were in order to protect and preserve the community and communitarian values, to keep out temptations and pressures to live lives devoted to getting and spending and acquiring wasteful and unnecessary toys and gizmos. You even find liberals championing that supposedly most conservative of values, self-reliance---after all, people can become as dependent upon corporate-created wealth as upon government aid.
While Promised Land respects the conservative progressive argument and even grants the point, it comes down squarely on the liberal conservative side. But because we don’t get to know McKinley as a place where people live out this ideal and as a place worth saving for itself, as opposed to on general principle, because no characters represent it in its particularity and peculiarity, the town doesn’t speak for itself and so must be spoken for. And this is a job left mainly to Frank in his homely homilies, to Krasniki's character, an environmental activist who, being an outsider, is in the position of telling people in town what they should think and do, that is, he's a professional preacher, and to, of all people, Steve, who keeps bringing up counter-arguments to his own sales pitch as part of that pitch.
Now here’s what I found most likeable about Promised Land: Matt Damon’s portrait of a well-meaning man divided against himself.
Steve grew up in Iowa, working on his grandfather's farm in a town a lot like---he'd say exactly like---McKinley. But his hometown's economy collapsed when he was in high school, and he watched neighbors and family lose their farms and their homes. A frightened and heartbroken Steve got the hell out and he’s never looked back---because he’s always looking ahead at his past looming up in front of him as he arrives in the next small town that’s his hometown all over again. He’s chosen a job that has him constantly repeating the crisis of his youth. On behalf of Global Crossover Solutions, he visits town after town facing the same threat of collapse and ruin as he saw happen back in Iowa, offering…solutions. He’s proud to be bringing in the money and industry that will give people lifeboats to climb into as their old way of life sinks beneath their feet. As he leaves a place, having closed deals that have left many people rich, he can tell himself that he’s saved the day again. Then he arrives in the next town where he meets with the same challenges all over again, the same problems, the same sort of people with the same troubles meeting him with the same (what he sees as willful) blindness to hard economic realities, the same stubborn resistance to his sales pitches. He has to make the same arguments all over again, only this time, in McKinley, he has begun to sense that his main argument is with himself. It’s becoming clear that he’s his own main customer and toughest sell.
Damon starts Steve off smooth-talking, witty, amiable, but with a gaze that keeps wandering, as if he’s suddenly sensing someone walking up from behind him to tap him on the shoulder, and tell him, Enough of this nonsense, let’s get out of here, we’ve got better things to do. As the movie goes along, his focus turns inward, his witticisms develop an edge, his amiability gives way to irritability, and more and more he seems to be listening only to himself and not liking what he hears.
At a certain point Damon lets us see that Steve’s mouth is running several beats ahead of his thoughts. He’s thinking about what he’s saying after he’s said it and he can’t believe anybody would spout such nonsense and expect any sane or sensible person to buy it.
Steve tells himself and whoever he thinks is listening that his coming from where he does allows him to sympathize with the folks he's negotiating with, and it does, but it also gives him the knowledge he needs to manipulate them. He's a salesman and he sells by exploiting fears and offering to make dreams come true.
But Steve has been subtly sabotaging himself from the start. The movie opens with him being offered a big promotion, with his bosses giving him a glimpse of the corporate promised land, and it shakes him down to his boots, which, as it happens, in a bit of heavy-handed or I should say heavy-footed symbolism, are his grandfather’s old workboots. He’s not having a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t appear to have any moral or ethical qualms about his work and what he’s done to earn the promotion or any serious objection to the culture of the home office suits he’ll be joining, even though they’re shown to be slightly ridiculous. The new job will bring him in off the road, which ought to be a relief. But it will also root him in the city. And that will put an end to his search.
All along, it appears, a part of Steve has kept him on the move. That’s the part of him that’s still trying to escape his hometown. But the reason he’s still trying to escape is that another part of him has been looking for something in every town he’s “closed.” Home and a reason to stay put.
Steve’s sales partner, Sue Thomason, has no divided interests. She’s unapologetic about what she’s doing---her job. In fact, that’s her refrain. “It’s just a job.” And she’s not granting herself absolution with it. Her conscience is clear. A job is what a decent person does to provide for herself and her family and to better their lot in life. A job is an opportunity to do yourself good. This is what she sells on behalf of Global Crossover Solutions, the opportunity to make your life better. If improving your chances in life means getting the hell out, you get the hell out. The important thing, though, is that it’s up to you what you make of the opportunity the money from Global provides.
Sue has no sentimental notions about McKinley or any other town she’s visited or will visit. Every place is the same to her, just a stop along the way. Unlike Steve, she doesn’t see herself as saving anybody or anything except herself, and, although she likes and admires Steve, she regards his savior complex as an indulgence, and a weakness, and, ultimately, a threat to her.
Her affection for Steve never wavers but her respect for him does, and we can see her point, because, as Sue, Frances McDormand manages to make cynical pragmatism and an almost conscience-less self-interest virtues. Or at least the forgivable side-effects of a virtue, one she practices without getting preachy about it, self-reliance.
This doesn’t mean Sue is without temptations to indulgences of her own, and one comes at her in McKinley in the form a sweet, mild, and humor-filled flirtation with Rob of Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas, who manages to find and bring out the small town girl in the big city businesswoman.
McDormand and Welliver make a good team. So do McDormand and Damon. Their relationship is teasing, playful, full of the knowledge and habits and sympathies built up over too many miles logged after too many days on the road together, with Sue as the amusedly critical older sister to Steve’s over-achieving and a little too full of himself kid brother.
As for the rest of the cast: Holbrook is Holbrook. As Alice, the schoolteacher who catches Steve’s eye, Rosemarie DeWitt mostly has to make us believe she’s a good reason for Steve to suddenly start thinking about staying put at last, which she does through her wit, her intelligence, and her warmth. Scoot McNairy turns up as the upright farmer making the case for the things in life worth more than money, although for the life of me I couldn’t have told you it was him when he first appeared. After seeing him as the Doubting Thomas of the group of diplomats in hiding in Argo, the whiny-voiced thief in Killing Them Softly, and now in Promised Land, I’m thinking he’s on his way to becoming one of the great movie chameleons of our time. Tim Guinee has a heartbreaking cameo as one of the few residents of McKinley we get to know as something more than an example of a point Promised Land is making. Van Sant holds on his face as Guinee shows us the absolute terror of a man receiving news that seems to him too good to be true at the same time he realizes that his whole world is about to be turned upside down. And as the environmental activist who seems to have Steve’s number, because, essentially, he's Steve’s double, John Krasinski has the engaging and persuasive confidence of a man who knows he has right on his side and an ace up his sleeve.
The Blonde’s Blurb: Poignant!
Related Mannion at the Movies second run reviews: Matt Damon delivers another likeable performance in another Local Hero-esque comedy, We Bought a Zoo: Liking the Animals, loving the humans. And a lot more was at work in Argo than just Scoot McNairy being a human chamleon: The best bad idea we have.
Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinski, and Rosemary DeWitt. Now in theaters. Rated R.