I seem to talk a lot about once great directors losing their edges. Most recently, I mentioned David Cronenberg. Last year around this time, it was the Coen Brothers. Ridley Scott is another example. I could go on and on.
Another good example is Gus Van Sant. Like all of the directors I’ve mentioned, it isn’t that what he does today is bad. Far from it. But all of these directors have polished their art to the point where it is dull. Van Sant’s first three films were marvelous—seething with the passion that he felt for his subjects. Mala Noche is kind of hard to watch these days because of its technical problems and narrative discontinuity, but it is also about as pure a piece of art as you ever seen. Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho are as fresh today as they were 20 years ago.
Then things started to go wrong. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was a worthy effort. To Die For really started to define a new style for Van Sant: polished and distant. And then Good Will Hunting came along. It wasn’t so much the direction. The fact that Gus Van Sant had decided to do such a trite piece of work is why it was so disappointing. Up to that point, Van Sant could be depended upon to make cheap films that performed pretty well at the box office. Good Will Hunting was a mega-hit. After that, we got bigger budgets and more of the same. Now if you go to see a Gus Van Sant film, you can bet it will be some variation on Finding Forrester.
Today, I watched Promised Land. Stiff characters, feel good theme, and a horribly predictable denouement. What’s not to like? But there is something that I especially didn’t like: the moral journey of Steve Butler (Matt Damon). It has to do with Faust. If we are to accept Goethe, Faust gets out of hell on a technicality. I’ve never liked that. In Dr. Faustus he goes to hell. That’s what a Faustian Bargain is all about. Once you accept it, you accept it completely.
If you spend 20 years screwing people over, you don’t wake up one day and decide to change. That whole period was one big training session for convincing yourself that what you are doing is right. Army Generals don’t wake up one day and decide that they are pacifist. They’ve spent too much time convincing themselves that while war may be wrong, if good men like themselves don’t blah, blah, blah.
I understand that someone can have an epiphany. True believers can react violently when their illusions are shattered. But Butler’s illusions aren’t shattered. He knows from the beginning that what he does is potentially harmful. But more important, he knows that his job is to not give the people all of the information. And what does he do at the end? He gives the people all the information. It doesn’t seem like the path his character was on. It seems like what the plot required for a happy ending.
On the plus side, watching Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver together was fun. Every scene with them lit up the screen. It was also great to see Hal Holbrook working and looking more than ever like Mark Twain. And of course Matt Damon was Matt Damon, and that ain’t bad.
There were films named “Promised Land” produced in 1973, 1975, 1986, 1987, 2002, 2004, and of course, 2012. Perhaps a better title would have been, “My Own Private Fracking Rights.”