"That delusional self-mythology? It's all bullshit." So says Matt Damon's character, Steve Butler, at one point in Gus van Sant's smartly-scripted, deeply humanist look at the changes America is undergoing at the moment. What Steve is talking about is the mythical American rural small town, being destroyed by the advancing forces of globalisation and the service economy, as farming and ranching fall by the wayside.

     And Steve should know because he saw it first-hand as his own small town withered and died after the big industry left, leading him to taking a job as a successful sales representative with a company offering a way out and safe money to depressed landowners through the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" - a recent and controversial technique for extracting gas or oil from the land. His last job before riding the express lift to the head office, though, finds him facing an opponent who gives as good as he gets: the arrival of ecological activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) signals the beginning of a battle for the soul of a small rural Pennsylvania town where no one wants to see the place go to seed, but where not everyone is willing to turn down good money for an uncertain future, but also, in a larger sense, a battle for the soul of America (citizens versus corporations).

     It could also be seen as a metaphor for the integrity Mr. Van Sant finds here - though Promised Land has much in common with his previous work, namely in his uncertain but straight-backed heroes who find themselves embracing a frontline they never asked for, he is here as a director for hire; the film was to have been Mr. Damon's directing debut, with the actor stepping back after realising that shooting overruns on another project prevented him from preparing adequately for the job. Needless to say, it does not seem at all like a mere understudy job; instead, Mr. Van Sant places himself at the service of the story, underlining the humanity of these characters, never afraid to show them at their worst but never stooping down to easy platitudes or demagogical demonisations. Everyone has a reason for doing what they are doing, and everyone believes in something - in that sense, Mr. Van Sant's camera, always at eye level, dovetails neatly with Messrs. Damon and Krasinski' script, which is not so much about fracking and its dangers or advantages rather than about people and the way they react in difficult circumstances.

     Promised Land seems to have been custom tailored for the director, who not only perfectly sets up the rural small-town setting as he also makes sure every single role, even the smallest, has a heart beating inside and a reason to do things - much helped by a stellar cast where no role is merely supporting (but where, admittedly, Frances McDormand as Mr. Damon's sales rep colleague and Titus Welliver as a local merchant do steal the show at moments). It's a great "little" movie where feelings trumps message at every single crossroads.

Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie de Witt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney, Hal Holbrook
Director: Gus van Sant
Screenplay: Mr. Krasinski, Mr. Damon, from a story by Dave Eggers
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren (colour)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Daniel S. Clancy
Costumes: Juliet Polcsa
Editor: Billy Rich
Producers: Mr. Damon, Mr. Krasinski, Chris Moore (Focus Features, Sunday Night, Pearl Street Films and Media Farm in association with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi)
USA/United Arab Emirates, 2012, 106 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Filmkunst 66 (Berlin), February 6th 2013


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