Focus’ new Oscar focus: Gus Van Sant’s ‘Promised Land’

Moving Gus Van Sant’s issue drama “Promised Land” into this year’s Oscars season raises some interesting questions for Focus Features.

The studio has three other movies -– the costume drama “Anna Karenina,” the Franklin Delano Roosevelt love story “Hyde Park on the Hudson” and Wes Anderson’s brilliant “Moonrise Kingdom.” Making it a quartet with “The Promised Land” speaks both to the studio’s belief in the quality and playability of Van Sant’s film and to the idea that the other three movies might not quite have the stuff to land a best picture nomination.

“Promised Land” mirrors another Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-friendly Van Sant movie, “Good Will Hunting,” in that its screenplay originated with two of its lead actors. Here, it’s Matt Damon and John Krasinski, working from a Dave Eggers story. We’ll let the studio synopsis speak for itself:


“Steve Butler (Damon), a corporate salesman, arrives in a rural town with his sales partner (Frances McDormand). With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company’s offer for drilling rights to their properties as much-needed relief. What seems like an easy job for the duo becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) with support from a grassroots campaign led by another man (Krasinski), who counters Steve both personally and professionally.”

If this sounds familiar, you probably saw “GasLand,” Josh Fox’s 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary about the way natural gas drilling, done through a stimulation method known as hydraulic fracturing, is messing up the water in neighboring communities. Fox is currently working on a sequel that will address, in his words, “methane emissions and climate change, the internationalization of the issue, and another layer of contamination — the contamination in our government.”

The academy loves a good issue movie, and the gifted Van Sant has demonstrated the ability to handle controversial material with both intelligence and a delicate touch. The filmmaker, who turned 60 in July, won critics and cinephiles out of the gate with his 1985 debut, “Mala Noche.” His follow-up film, “Drugstore Cowboy,” cemented his indie credentials, and the 1995 black comedy “To Die For” displayed range and an ability to connect to a wider audience, not to mention award-season voters. (Nicole Kidman won a Golden Globefor her turn as the mockumentary’s ruthlessly ambitious weatherwoman.)

Since then, Van Sant has alternated between such mainstream crowd pleasers as “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forrester” and independent, and, at times, experimental efforts like “Gerry,” “Elephant” and “Last Days.”

When he works within conventional parameters, Van Sant has proven himself a formidable force at the Oscars. “Good Will Hunting” received nine Oscar nominations in 1998, including picture and director, and won two -- Robin Williams for supporting actor and Damon and Ben Affleck for original screenplay. Eleven years later, “Milk” nearly repeated the pattern, winning eight nominations, including picture and director. The biopic won Oscars for Sean Penn’s lead performance and Dustin Lance Black’s original screenplay.

And, yes, “Finding Forrester,” with its equal measure of inspiration and catharsis, failed to register with voters in 2001. But not a day goes by when we don’t hear this song in a mall or a commercial spot or the radio or wafting over the fence from our neighbor’s backyard.

“Promised Land” is currently in its 11th week of post-production. It will open in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 28, qualifying it for the Oscars.

Follow Glenn Whipp on Twitter: @glennwhipp


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