I often find myself trying to define the role of film in a greater societal context. For me, a movie’s job is often twofold: to entertain, and to inform discussions and dialogues amongst viewers. The other night, I revisited Gus van Sant‘s film Promised Land, released in 2012. It’s one of my favorite types of films, one that discusses an important and topical issue within the framework of a narrative, rather than as a nonfiction documentary.
Most documentaries have a self selecting audience. They tend to not reach a wide audience or an uninformed audience, instead, they cater only to those already well-versed in the subject matter being presented. A narrative feature, or even a TV series (check out the FANTASTIC Norwegian series, Occupied, for an awesome current example), has a much higher chance of reaching people who might not otherwise have been exposed to a particular topic that might be highlighted in a documentary. When this under-targeted group of people watches the narrative, two things can happen: either they enjoy the narrative for the entertaining story that it is and move on with their lives, or, their curiosity is piqued and they leave the viewing experience with a desire to do individual research and engage in dialogue about what they’ve seen.
Promised Land, tells the story of a man working for a large natural gas company. He and his partner go to a small, rural town the company wants to acquire. Their job is to pay off the town so that the large gas company, and not the townspeople, may reap the rewards. Having also penned a feature length screenplay on a controversial environmental topic (GMO foods), I understand how difficult it is to tow the line between exposition and explanation of an issue, while also maintaining a compelling narrative and a story that does not feel excessively preachy, or like an informational document. For the most part, Promised Land does a good job balancing these warring goals, falling into a trap of exposition only at the final confrontation between Steve Butler and Dustin Noble.
The film only performed moderately well, and was met with mixed reviews, and while, the story may have a simple and predictable arc, Promised Land rings truer to a film made by the likes of Frank Capra or Charlie Chaplin than anything else, and what better filmmakers to aspire to? Much of the time a simple idea sets off the greatest spark. If one is in a position to vocalize concerns and attempt to spread knowledge, then one must take any opportunity that presents itself to do this. Entertainers entertain, but I would contest that, given our celebrity-centric society and news cycle, their success comes with an imperative to help inform the population on issues which are significant to our time.
I implore you to revisit this film, if you have already seen it, or give it a chance, if you have not. It is two hours well spent.