Promised Land (2012)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Screenplay by John Krasinski & Matt Damon
Story by Dave Eggers
Promised Land is a good movie. And Gus Van Sant is a good director. And Matt Damon and John Krasinski are good actors and writers.
This is a movie that nobody saw last year. It’s a small movie, the kind that still gets made by mega celebrities like Matt Damon but that nobody sees because the market is pretty well taken over by other kinds of movies like Taken 2 and The Vow. But I’m not here to wax pretentiously about lowest common denominato, fluff that ‘Hollywood’ is so ‘evil’ for churning out. (The hipsters have that market well cornered.) I’m here, rather, to talk about Promised Land. But first, about Gus Van Sant.
Gus Van Sant is one of those auteurs that every once in a while comes out with a movie like this. His filmography is certainly eclectic. He’s gay, artistic, and somewhat iconic—representing the filmmaking leg of the Portland/Seattle grunge scene that took the world by storm in the early 1990s. He began, humbly, in the throes of the burgeoning independent renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s with his small, black and white, homosexual comedy Mala Noche, and followed it up with his indie classics Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho (the latter, a boring Shakespearean tale of heroin and sex).
Like many famous directors, each of his films is some kind of ‘event’, with the better ones, like Promise Land, slipping under the radar. He made the 1998, shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, which was highly controversial by sake of its own needless existence. On the commentary, Gus never mentions the controversy, and seems almost completely unaware that one exists, never mentioning why one would want to make an exact copy of a famous old movie, other than to briefly say that it is a noble venture to deliver classics to kids these days. I like to think he was unaware that prints can be made and movies can simply be re-released.
Van Sant has also made some very classy pictures that we all know and love. For instance, Good Will Hunting, which came out in 1997 and competed against Titanic and As Good As It Gets, and managed to propel Ben Affleck and Matt Damon into A-Listers overnight, winning them Oscars for best screenplay. It was a small, under the radar movie and one of the early ‘indie darlings’ that would populate the filmic landscape for years to come. The movie itself is rustic yet elegant. Van Sant revels in a lush, brown and yellow color palette that reeks of professorial esteem. His visuals are soft and intentional, and his direction of Matt Damon and Robin Williams is flawless. The script, and movie, have a lot of heart, and its warmth is no mistake—it’s literal and figurative all at once.
His follow up was the equally classy but not as good Finding Forrester, and then he once again disappeared into the indie world to release a trilogy of highly experimental avant garde films: Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. All of them use uncomfortably long takes and wide, objective compositions to create a level of realism almost unheard of in the cinema. Whether you like the experiment or not, it’s hard to ignore how close the trifecta comes to the cinematic event horizon. While many ‘stylistic’ movies are extremely cut-y or obtrusive, Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days are so atmospheric, by design, that they challenge the viewer to consider the boundaries of how the art form can create and foster realism. Often the style shoots Van Sant in the foot, generating an abundance of boring scenes, yet the willingness to experiment in the first place and the few effective moments are enough to redeem them. It’s also hard to deny the sheer visual power of a movie like Gerry. It’s equally hard to ignore the visceral power of the objectively-staged violence and high school realism in Elephant. And absolutely impossible to ignore the genius of playing an entire Boys II Men video on a TV screen, as seen in Last Days. (That last one was facetious.)
Gus Van Sant’s best movie, by far, is his most under-seen, To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman as a spicy, coy femme fatale. It’s essentially a noir thriller, but its design is refreshing and its style is relentless. It seamlessly combines documentary, fourth wall breaking passages, and disjointed narrative structure to weave itself into a cute little crime movie. Keep a look out for a cameo by David Cronenberg. Other highlights include an amazing performance by a young Joaquin Phoenix, and Illeana Douglas. Plus the last shot is really cool!
I guess I should also mention Milk, even though it’s so boring I don’t really want to. In fact, the only thing interesting about Milk is my suspicion that James Franco and Sean Penn had sex in prep for their roles because they’re both so goddamn Method-y.
But now lets talk about Promised Land. Similar to Finding Forrester, it’s good, but not great. Overly obvious dialogue pollutes the tone and distracts you from the subtlety found in the sparingly great dialogue. The opening scene is the real culprit—I say it all the time, but exposition is so tricky. Promised Land didn’t even really try to hide it’s exposition, and uses Terry Kinney as a foil and just lets the characters speak the entire premise. I don’t really have a problem with that, but if you’re going to go that route, I’d like to see it staged a little more interestingly. A dimly lit restaurant conversation scene just won’t suffice.
However, that aside, Promised Land is a movie that gets better as it goes on. And those kind of movies are great because it means the writer knows how to create plot threads and keep juggling them high in the air by raising the stakes. The most interesting thing about the movie is the complexity of its conflicts. Movies have a tendency to cast very clear heroes and villains. That works great in black and white universes like Star Wars, but it often breeds melodrama in more real world movies. In Promised Land, Matt Damon and Frances McDormand are wholly likable, yet, they’re the bad guys, but maybe, they aren’t. It’s hard to tell. And John Krasinski is perfect as the nemesis. He plays a dork wonderfully.
In that sense, Promised Land does everything right that most movies, especially the ones of today, do wrong. It uses grounded realism to foster plausible believability for the times when it needs to cast itself into the scary world of subtext-speaking melodrama. For movies to work, the subtext must be spoken. Every film teacher you ever had is completely wrong and ass backwards—everybody speaks the subtext in their own life and that’s how conflicts are fought and resolved. But it’s a hard thing to write, and most writers can’t do it well. (Writers like Quentin Tarantino, with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, avoided this by having virtually no meaningful, character-driven conflicts and instead just having, wordy, pointless conversations about Madonna songs or cheeseburgers.)
The movie is very strong visually, with auteur-y touchstones throughout, from the lush, rich, saturated color (I especially love how Van Sant revels in the bar location, taking full advantage of the wet colored lights) very deliberate lens choices, and subtle tracking shots. And as far as sound, a well thought out soundtrack. Van Sant’s ability to juggle these trademarks to create tone, no matter what genre he tackles, is refreshing. His filmography spans many genres, from useless remakes to avant garde experiments to cherished dramas, but despite this, all of his movies have an unmistakable Van Sant stamp.
There’s one scene in particular where he really shows off his directing chops. It’s essentially the part where the movie begins. Damon’s character is sitting down with the mayor guy or whoever at the diner. I love the obligatory use of the two-people-sitting-at-a-diner-talking-in-profile shot that every single 90’s indie movie had. This is the shot I’m talking about:
Anyway, there’s a wonderful moment in the coverage when the idea of the bribe is brought up. It’s the first time in the movie that anything mysteriously political happens. It’s an important moment that telegraphs the thematic undertone of the entire movie. The scene is constructed out of simple coverage, intentionally reeking of familiarity. The familiarity here is used to highlight what Van Sant does next. Right at the moment in the dialogue when the bribe is brought up, the camera dollies left to switch sides over Damon’s other shoulder. Then, the reverse shot of Damon changes sides to match. The line has been crossed, literally. This subtle movement is a very small deviation of the standard coverage that we’ve all grown accustomed to. By doing it, and by keeping the movement small and doing it with dramatic intention, he is exercising his directorial creativity. Like any advanced artist, his camera movement is not merely impressive—it’s expressive. In such a small and simple way, Van Sant found a way to express the subtext of the dialogue with his camera. That is true filmmaking genius.
Little touches like that separate the men from the boys and let you know you’re in the hands of a master. That one shot is better and more expressive than any moment in any other movie that came out last year. Well, except Looper.
Good job, Gus.
1 out of 1 stars.