Often a film will contain the key granting access to its significance within its body proper. This key could be a scene, a shot, an object, a sound, even a single frame (that of the African girl’s gaze meeting the camera’s eye in Sans Soleil).
Gus van Sant’s Promised Land contains such a key, one which reveals the flimsiness of the film’s moral position and the triteness of its aesthetics. Steve and Sue (Matt Damon and Frances McDormand), sales representatives for the Global energy concern, enter a local grocery to purchase rustic disguises (flannel shirts, blue jeans, baseball caps). The secret to Steve’s unparalleled sales success in middle America is the donning of a façade – one which draws its potency not only from country clothing and gesture, but also from the personal mythology of his own small-town provenance.
Even Steve and Sue are hard-pressed to accept their own farcical pretense, which fails to pass muster as the first farmer they meet pulls the sales tag off of Steve’s jacket. This anodyne scene is the key to the film’s interpretation in that it exposes not only the duo’s unconvincing duplicity, but the film’s own hypocrisies as well.
Promised Land opens and closes with the camera gliding aloofly over farmlands in summer, a lofty distance from both land and people which it never closes. In lieu of rural America’s rough-hewed landscapes, the middlebrow camerawork delivers picture postcards whose polished images fit the land as much as a dirty shovel fits Matt Damon’s hand. (In comparison, see the mud-birthed faces emanating from the Flanders or Brittany of a Bruno Dumont film).
Steve and Sue gallivant across the countryside trying to outsmile their environmentalist nemesis (actually a straw-man fiend who is a colleague in disguise), in order to ensure their career success, as well as the screenplay’s correction of their misguided ways. Implausibly, the very farmers whose livelihood will likely be destroyed by the firm Steve represents cannot cease to praise him for “being a good guy,” always polite, who from a small town himself can even drink like the rest of them.
The film sedately accepts the corrupt corporate logic of accountability’s annulment as long as the individual in question has at least one positive quality. Following this logic to its terminus, the ruination of life and land is excused as long as one has amorphously good intentions. Offering the untenable pretense of an honorable moral position, Promised Land’s actual moral position is that of easychair comfort. Forsaking the land for immense monetary gain is excusable as long as one is “a good person” (and one assumes, following the Hollywood credo of equivocation of morality and aesthetics, good-looking).
This dissolution of moral responsibility is accompanied by a syrupy-sweet display of hokiness, replete with scenes of little league, lemonade stands, smiling children, wise grandfathers, community meetings, barbeques and rained-out town fairs. Promised Land’s corniness climaxes when Steve Butler closes with film with a hero-making, almost presidential speech, flaunting the important personal lesson he learned (this above all: to thine own self be true), thanks to which he will now gladly renounce his professional career for a chance at true love in their homey rustic town.
Steve’s affected discourse even includes (beware screenwriters) a reappropriation of his sweetheart Alice’s smug finger-wag: “we all need something we have to take care of,” which he duly regurgitates in full view of all so that as he presents the local yokels his humble missive of newfound illumination, he can simultaneously deliver an subtle message of love to his dearest beloved.
The competent performances, proficient editing, pretty shots and talented director cannot save the film from its fake plastic morality, constructed upon the scaffolding of hokey heroism and fatuous screenwriting. As Steve and Sue sit on the front seats of the two-tone pickup truck in their jeans and flannels awkwardly preparing themselves to present a lie no one, not even they believe, their actions are a key which unlocks Promised Land’s awareness of its own clumsy cinematic fakery and facile moral gloss.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt