When reduced to basic building blocks, all cinema (all art, you might say) is social commentary.
Few filmmakers, however, are as overt in stating a case as Gus Van Sant – Elephant (2003) and Milk (2008) got right in the face of gun culture and homophobia. In this he has tackled the red-hot topic of coal seam gas mining.
Matt Damon is Steve Butler, an energy company rep who, with fellow employee Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), is buying up leases in a struggling farming community in the mid-west. What better actor to play the wholesome country boy who has arrived to save the battlers from financial ruin? Steve considers that clinging to the past and resisting progress is mere ‘delusional self-mythologising’. He believes in what he’s doing and Van Sant allows him to make cogent, reasonable arguments to support his and the big end of town’s position. This is the movie’s strength – that Steve, if not his bosses, is so upright, so genuine.
Docos, polemic in nature, preach to the converted (who often have their own entrenched prejudices), whereas dealing with an issue of critical importance via the means of traditional storytelling – with romance, conflict and identifiable characters – can convert the uncommitted and/or apathetic mob.
As well as it being stimulating and relevant, Van Sant has given us a fine entertainment, at once subversive, pugnacious and tender. Avarice is an unfair charge to make of a poor mother whose only hope of sending her child to college is to accept the company’s money, and Van Sant does well to stress this to those of us on our high horses.
The townsfolk will vote on whether they will acquiesce, but the ground starts to shift under Steve’s feet when the battle is joined by an environmental campaigner.
‘This is all we have’ is a message that is taking too long to sink in to our collective conscience – Van Sant’s wonderful movie will go some way to hurrying it up. And the sting in the tail is a beauty.