Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: John Krasinski, Matt Damon
Stars: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski
Promised Land opens in an opulent five-star restaurant, where Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a young man realizing his lifelong ambition. He’s being vetted for an executive position with a multinational natural gas corporation that symbolizes the safe haven that his family’s Iowa farmland failed to provide. But before he meets his future boss, he’s splashing his face with water in the bathroom. He stares into the mirror, not noticing his reflection in the sink water going down the drain. It’s a visual dichotomy: one obvious, one subtle. He’s not seeing the downside of where he’s going. When Steve picks up country clothes in a local store before taking his sales pitch into the homes of resident farmers, the metaphor of chameleon is extended. Absorbed in his belief that guaranteed security is within reach, the young man’s true identity is hidden from his own view.
Promised Land makes a good point stick. This is a time when humans are affecting nature’s systems, a time when a young man’s quest is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the land — and he hardly knows it. Promised Land signifies quiet stretches of scenic farmland as both life source and resource. A promise is a two-way street. Land requires what it offers – protection as the bespoken home of future generations while meeting basic needs of people in the present. And as the human population increases, the meaning of “promised land” is palpably shifting from a place of easy pickings to a place of endangered refuge.
Promised Land has a subtitle: “At Risk”.
Not alone as a film with an eco-consciousness, Promised Land ups the ante. The film dwells upon the difficult issue of risking tomorrow for today’s necessity of fuel and cash, with minimal moralizing and no easy answers. Those of us who live in Los Angeles live every day on a major fault line. A planar fracture often shakes the earth beneath our feet, portending certain disaster. Yet we reside here, work here and raise our children here. Psychologists have a name for the mechanism that allows us peace of mind: denial. Because an earthquake is an act of nature, we shrug, buy earthquake insurance and carry on. Promised Land is less about changing minds than waking them up.
Steve Butler is a highly successful field salesman buying drilling rights to the natural gas beneath farmland for a bargain price. Impoverished when a local Caterpillar plant closed in his childhood farming community, he determined to never be victimized again by a lack of money. He takes advantage of his understanding of the desperation farmers feel when they’re scraping the bottom and losing what little they have. His success elevates his status in the corporation while, by his own reasoning, rescuing farmers from bankruptcy, saving the land and giving the little guy ‘fuck you’ money to beat the consequences of poverty. Sounds win-win, as long as Steve is in denial about fracking, the process by which natural gas is extracted from the ground. Dangerous chemicals threaten the water table upon which the farmers all depend. Promised Land moves the question from plot to planet, from oil boom to earth devoured and a faith unique to our times because there’s no way to know what lies on the other side of extraction.
It makes us wonder, What would I do?
An old high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) with a physics background raises his hand in a community meeting and asks the question that pits today’s well being against tomorrow’s: “How do you get it?”, the “it” being the natural gas that lies like gold beneath acres of farmland that yield subsistence living for the farmers. At first, he appears an old crank. Then he’s a wise elder, expanding the question philosophically for Steve. As he stands on the porch of his home, he explains his options to Steve the way he sees them. He’s a man who was forced to give up farming to raise miniature horses — not a popular alternative in any community. But it’s a way to eke out a living and stay put. If he sells to Steve and the early reports of fracking’s danger prove true, he asks rhetorically, “Where would we go?”
Thwang! In a heartbeat, the question of risk climbs the ladder of time. Where, besides earth do we go? Bet on redemption or another planet? Or tend?
The story of Promised Land comes, in part, from author Dave Eggers, a man resilient to family tragedy. When both parents died, he raised his young brother while still in school himself. He inspires the film’s answer to the dark question of risk with a life dedicated to teaching and tending. Steve’s spunky love interest, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), gave up her city life to come home and tend her family’s farm when her father dies. Alice, like the thorny rose in The Little Prince, “tames” Steve, waking him up to his planet as a beautiful place to live. His view of farmland changes from disappointing to promising as his feelings for her grow. She supports her farm by teaching and uses the land to teach her fifth graders to garden. She explains to Steve that she’s not teaching them to farm but how to take care of something. How do you take care of a plant so it doesn’t die…so we don’t die? How do you take care of land so it doesn’t die…so human beings don’t die out as a species? Promised Land is bespoken land — meant to support the spirit of life as well as its materiality.
You may have noticed that I have not weighed nor speculated upon the motives of the natural gas corporation but rather the power of people to think long and hard about short-term gains and long-term consequences. In the film, the corporation is not simply evading the questions of the future: it’s betraying its own employees. Steve Butler is not only betrayed, but set up for humiliation by his employer, so perhaps its motives warrant more exposition. But Promised Land is not just another movie about corporate betrayal. It’s an insistent wake up call. To see the larger, mythic question of a young man going out to seek his fortune only to discover it lies within…and beneath his feet, in the air he breathes and the water he drinks or splashes on his face is more unique, more interesting, more relevant. Steve Butler comes home to the land he left and becomes the man who will search his heart for the elusive, critical answers to the question of risking the earth’s water supply. The corporation set his priorities straight. Now the hard work begins.
As I was working on this essay, I came across a fable told by Zhang Yimou as he was directing the opera, Turandot (1998) that spoke to the pressing question of risk lying within Promised Land:
A girl who is about to be murdered tells her killer that if his act is wrong, then it will snow in summer — and so it does.
And a little perusal of Turandot offers an answer to puzzles that can’t be won by might or right – love.
Promised Land provokes thoughtfulness about the issue of risk as major decisions about what’s best for life on the planet must be made by individuals everywhere. There is now a need for more than harnessing the winds of the earth to return home. We need to master the winds of time. Risk must be addressed with all the big brains, big hearts and big foresight we can muster because much lies with the choices ahead.