A Look Back: “Promised Land”.

Gus Van Sant is a radical, but no one said radicals have to make good movies, or that experimentation is conducive to creative growth. Some of Van Sant’s experiments have been revelatory, like “Elephant,” while others, like the arty but tedious “Paranoid Park,” evoke an emptier variation on the aching celestial blues of something like “My Own Private Idaho”. It’s admirable that Van Sant continues to push himself and others in his old age, of that there is no doubt. And yet the question remains: what happens when one of America’s foremost cinematic noodlers tries to make a movie with a point? What happens when what was once shapeless finds a purpose, however misguided? What happens, in other words, when Gus Van Sant sets out to make movie that is not solely concerned with style and mood and vibe and more concerned with… eek… the message?

It’s hard to say what’s preferable: the watching-paint-dry ethos of something like “Last Days”, or “Promised Land”, a hysterically bad and borderline fraudulent social rights drama directed by Van Sant that was cynically released just in time for the 2013 Awards season. Thankfully, the movie was almost completely ignored in regards to the explicit purposes for which it was created. So why are we talking about it? Because before we as a moviegoing community throw our hands in the air in disgust over the allegedly catastrophic “Sea of Trees,” (release date pending, I believe) we need to talk a little bit about what’s happened to Gus Van Sant.

Van Sant, for the last few years or so, has been dabbling in a minimalist, borderline abstract aesthetic that has been off-putting, to say the least of it, to significant sectors of his demographic who prefer the more traditionally satisfying narratives of “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Good Will Hunting”. “Elephant” remains one of the bravest and most vital American dramas of the early 2000s, and perhaps the most affecting movie ever made about a school shooting. The rest of the director’s experiments, though, have been a mixed bag: “Last Days”, mentioned earlier, is his meandering attempt at capturing a sort of existential ennui through a not-entirely-messianic Cobain figure, and the film, as such, is a total drag. “Gerry”’s images are potent and economical, and the disarming performances of lead actors Damon and Casey Affleck kept it from turning into a total bore. “Milk” injected the standard movie biopic with some of Van Sant’s unusual humanism and the less said about “Paranoid Park,” the better.

With that said, I have to say that nothing could prepare me for the misguided histrionics of “Promised Land”, where pinpointing the precise location of the empty glaze in the actor’s eyes becomes more compelling than the narrative itself. The film owes a great deal of what meager virtue it does possess to lead actor Damon, now in his fourth collaboration with Van Sant (they’ve no doubt currently had some in-depth talks with their respective agencies in the wake of this mess). Damon remains one of our best actors: an instinctive and canny chameleon who rarely has a false moment on screen. He’s done no favors with the maddeningly inconsistent and charisma-free character of Steve Butler, whose every line reading and crucial dramatic moment feels like a misstep. Steve is a fidgety, insincere corporate worm, a salesman who travels, with his partner, (Frances McDormand, looking like she wishes she was somewhere else) to a rural Pennsylvania farming town in hopes of obtaining the signatures of local landowners so his corporate overseers can begin fracking in the area.

The film toggles uneasily between embarrassingly earnest we-are-the-people melodrama and something that resembles a community players reading of a John Sayles movie. Van Sant’s dramatic interests, it would appear, are anywhere but focused with what’s happening onscreen: the entire movie feels directed from a distance, as if the director couldn’t be bothered to engage seriously with the admittedly very significant issues at the movie’s center. In fact, damn near the whole thing is botched from the go: the didactic and stiff-sounding dialogue, the egregious instances of miscasting (olive-skinned Goodfella Titus Welliver as a cornpoke gas station clerk, up-and-coming character actor Scoot McNairy as a grumpy farm hand), the narratively superfluous shots of treelines and wide-open fields. None of it registers. John Krasinski, as an ambitious environmental advocate with an empty smile and a ruthless agenda, is so bad here that I occasionally felt compelled to pinch myself, as a sort of reminder that I wasn’t watching an SNL sketch making fun of these kinds of movies. That being said, Krasinski is well-cast: the actor has an agreeable veneer with something off-putting and self-regarding bubbling just beneath the surface, a quality that’s on full display here. But the character — who is central to the movie’s gestalt — is never fully realized, and Krasinski is not a dynamic enough performer to take what could be meager on the page and make music out of it.

There isn’t a second of this dull, smug disaster that I believed. That’s a problem. Because this isn’t a mood piece like “Last Days” or “Paranoid Park”. Like I said earlier, this is something more deadly: a message movie. What happens when directors forget that entertaining and moving their audiences is more valuable then lecturing them. Plausibility is a narrative sin that can be forgiven if the other elements of the picture work to elevate it. Lots of great movies actually, from “The Great Escape” to “Jaws,” are implausible. Generally, message movies do not fall under this banner. As I said, narrative implausibility can sometimes be forgiven. Dramatic tedium, generally, cannot. Van Sant is an artist at his core — brave, unafraid to look into corners of human life others would scurry away from in disgust. This airbrushed, empty-headed film is nothing more than a charade: a litany of fumbling, meaningless exposition in search of a reason to exist. Watch at your own risk.

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