A biopic about this country’s first openly gay elected official, a trilogy of films inherently about death, and one of the most beloved crowd pleasers of his generation. These are just a few examples of the types of pictures that director Gus Van Sant has made throughout the span of his career. From Good Will Hunting to Gerry, there are very few film directors as diverse, yet singular, as Van Sant. Now, he’s back once again with yet another gorgeously crafted feature, this time, with politics on its brain.
Looking at the process of hydraulic fracturing (better known as ‘˜fracking’, read more about it here), Van Sant’s new film, entitled Promised Land, follows the story of a natural gas company’s pair of salespeople (Matt Damon and Frances McDormand), as they venture into the center of a small town that the company, Global, is looking to start leasing. It seems like an easy, run of the mill, couple of days in the office, however, when a fiery high school teacher (Hal Holbrook) and a upstart environmentalist (John Krasinski) hit the scene, the story gets a little more twisted and their job a little more difficult.
Despite being a truly singular visual filmmaker, Promised Land finds director Gus Van Sant at his most hands off. The photography, shot by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, fits Van Sant’s muted and earthy aesthetic, but he never resorts to the same flights of fancy that even make a studio picture like Milk stand out as a shining example of filmmaking experimentation. However, that’s not a negative. The film’s hushed style is a breath of fresh air here, as the film’s narrative is rife with intriguing interpersonal tales and a thought provoking tale about a man’s belief coming into contest. The cinematography is top notch, and few moments we do get (particularly the gorgeous and isolating aerial shots) are breathtaking, making this a muted, but thriving bit of drama.
There may also be no greater filmmaker than Van Sant, when it comes to getting performances out of his actors. Damon stars here, and is absolutely fantastic. His inherent charisma makes his burgeoning relationship with Rosemarie DeWitt’s Alice moving and believable, while his ability to emote makes his inner struggle equally affecting. DeWitt is great here, as is the other woman in Damon’s character’s, Steve Butler, life Frances McDormand, who plays Sue Thompson. Both of them get the best out of Damon, as does John Krasinski. Krasinski stars as Dustin Noble, a seemingly charming environmentalist with a pre-existing beef with the company of focus here. Rounding out the cast is Hal Holbrook, who is great, but ultimately wasted over far too few a number of sequences. His moment opposing Damon’s Butler is, admittedly your standard dramatic beat for a film like this, but Holbrook (and Damon as well) adds a distinct gravitas to the sequence making it as vital as anything the film brings subsequently.
With lofty thoughts on its mind, ranging from ‘fracking’ as a political issue to the struggle between doing what’s right for your town and what’s right for the land your town sits upon, Promised Land waxes philosophic a few times too many, or at least a few times too cliché, but what it becomes by its conclusion is a beautifully crafted meditation on one of today’s biggest environmental issues. Giving us a potent emotional center (admittedly a formulaic one) to rest upon, Promised Land is a moving motion picture from one of today’s great directors. Holding within it a collection of great performances, this is one winter release that should not be missed.