Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Big Screen Tales of Big Business Targeting Little People: Local Hero and Promised Land

Frances McDormand and Matt Damon in Promised Land

A lone red telephone booth on the outskirts of a Scottish fishing village. Skype in a Pennsylvania farming town. Those diverse means of communication for the protagonists are among the distinctions between, respectively, 1983’s offbeat Local Hero and the more formulaic Promised Land now in theaters. But the two films have quite a lot in common. In both, corporate America descends on small, insular communities in hopes of reaping the riches that lie within the good earth. Some folks are seduced by the promise of easy money, especially in hardscrabble times; others want to protect the land and their homegrown traditions.

Three decades ago, writer-director Bill Forsyth set Local Hero the west coast of his native Scotland and hired the great cinematographer Chris Menges to do it justice. In the fictitious hamlet of Ferness, life goes on much as it ever has until the arrival of Macintyre or “Mac” (Peter Riegert) and Danny (Peter Capaldi), advance men for a Texas oil company called Knox. Their boss (Burt Lancaster) has instructed them to buy up all the real estate so he can build a refinery. Although many people are happy to sell, an old coot (Fulton Mackay) who owns the valuable beachfront property refuses to budge. Promised Land – coauthored by two of its stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinski – had Gus Van Sant at the helm. In rural McKinley, the advance team for a natural gas conglomerate called Global is comprised of Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand). Their boss (Terry Kinney) has instructed them to buy up all the real estate so he can begin to drill, using a controversial process known as fracking. Although many citizens are happy to sell, an old coot (Hal Holbrook) makes a persuasive case against the takeover.

Peter Capaldi and Peter Riegert in Local Hero
Steve, who grew up in a similar bucolic enclave, is less a proponent of fracking than a canary in a coal mine (apart from the fact that coal also presents a threat to the ecosystem.) He believes that the country’s decimated agricultural heartland must survive by any means necessary. Local Hero’s Mac, by contrast, never really questions the primacy of fossil fuels, but succumbs to the idiosyncratic charm of a place he has come to obliterate. Steve casts doubts about his job aside and still falls prey to the quaint ambiance of McKinley, even while trying to obliterate it. Mac’s sidekick, Danny, is entranced by a marine biologist with mermaid tendencies (the aptly named Jenny Seagrove). In the Keystone State, Steve’s sidekick Sue finds herself attracted to the guy (Titus Welliver) who operates a general store that offers gas, groceries, guns and guitars. Turn up the quirk-o-meter! The older movie and the new one share a fondness for animals with symbolic auras: Local Hero features a reappearing rabbit. Promised Land tosses in some adorable goats – a few of them cared for by (Rosemarie DeWitt), the comely schoolmarm who takes a fancy to Steve – and miniature horses mistaken for ponies.

The cinematic wild card is Dustin (Krasinski), a sly environmental activist who wages clever psychological guerrilla warfare to undermine everything Steve and Sue are trying to do. His populist style emerges when he instigates a singalong to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” at a karaoke session in the bar where McKinleyites congregate (akin to the Local Hero pub where Ferness residents congregate). Dustin’s cheery demeanor only highlights Steve’s somber awkwardness among the good ole boys. Their rivalry prompts a debate about the dangers of the hydraulic fracturing technique, which pumps pressurized water and chemicals through layers of underground shale rock. In Gasland, an award-winning 2010 documentary by Josh Fox, people in areas where fracking is common are dismayed that their tap water can catch fire. FrackNation, a 2012 nonfiction film with a decidedly right-wing perspective, seeks to dispel the fears. However, for the general public, worries persist about pollution and those pesky fracking-generated earthquakes in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Ohio. Promised Land, based on a story that Krasinski developed with novelist Dave Eggers, attempts to be even-handed but clearly has its heart in progressive politics. The Machiavellian approach they have devised for Global attests to that worldview.

John Krasinski in Promised Land
Peter Riegert, a master of deadpan, is a perfect match for the understated proceedings in Local Hero. Damon’s reliable everyman, as opposed to his Jason Bourne superman, does what it needs to do in Promised Land. Krasinski is more compelling as he swaps his deer-in-the-headlights routine from NBC’s The Office for an almost feral look of cunning. McDormand, whose second-banana role primarily requires her to react, is never less than interesting to observe. Other than the afore-mentioned Springsteen tune, the music in Promised Land is composed and performed by relatively unknown bands, but much of it evokes Simon and Garfunkel, for some reason. Those selections certainly can’t hold up against the soundtrack for Local Hero delivered by the estimable Sultan of Swing, Mark Knopfler.

Whimsy, the hallmark of Bill Forsyth’s production, is not really evident in the earnest Van Sant effort. The humor seems more conventional, though perhaps the lack of Celtic wit and no Scottish burr might have something to do with that. As resolutions go, Skype is less important to Steve as his affection for Sweet Home McKinley deepens. This may be more satisfying to an audience than the choice confronting poor Mac in Unpredictable Home Ferness. The coastal village is redeemed but melancholy becomes palpable when ringing can be heard from inside an empty red telephone booth.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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