Promised Land (2012) – Brilliant Communication Through Cinematography


Directed by Gus Van Sant (Milk; Good Will Hunting; Elephant). Starring Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum; Good Will Hunting; The Departed; Invictus; The Talented Mr. Ripley), John Krasinski (The Office; Leatherheads; Away We Go; It’s Complicated), Frances McDormand (Blood Simple; Fargo; Almost Famous; North Country; Burn After Reading), Rosemarie DeWitt (Standoff; Rachel Getting Married). Screenplay by John Krasinski and Matt Damon. Music by Danny Elfman.

With Promised Land (2012), Gus Van Sant returns to direct another screenplay co-written by Matt Damon (Van Sant directed Damon’s Good Will Hunting in 1997). With the participation of director Van Sant, actors Krasinski, Damon, and McDormand (not to mention a myriad of established supporting actors/actresses), and composer Elfman, we have here quite the lineup. However, the real star of the show is the Director of Photography: The Swedish DP Linus Sandgren, FSF.

In Promised Land, Sandgren achieves unparalleled moments of brilliance. During the moment in the film that I am about to discuss, I audibly gasped with excitement in the theater (I saw the film earlier today and am already writing about it). He exemplifies the notion that cinematographers must serve the story with their shots, and greatness is achieved when the shots add to the storytelling in ways that no other aspect of the film is capable of.

To begin, skim this page (just the first part, the initial overview/definition) if you’re unfamiliar with the 180 Degree Rule in film. It provides information essential to understanding my points in this post:

Next, watch the following scene, during which Matt Damon’s character, Steve Butler, attempts to convince Mr. Richards to allow his natural gas drilling company to buy up land in the town.

First, pay attention to the blocking and setup of the scene. The two men eat in a diner. One side of their faces is illuminated by the daylight streaming in from the window. The other side of their faces is dark, with minimal light. In the first part of this clip, the axis of action falls so that the camera is shooting the two men from the dark side.

Let us consider the dark side to represent Mr. Richards having the upper hand in the conversation, and the illuminated side to represent Steve’s dominance in the conversation. 

What is not shown in this clip is that, in the beginning of this scene, the axis of action falls so that Steve and Mr. Richards are literally shot from the brighter side. As Mr. Richards voices his reservations about drilling and fends off Steve’s assertions, the camera glides over to the dark side of the men, representing a shift in the conversation: Steve loses dominance as Mr. Richards voices his concerns. This clip begins when Steve rebuts.

The dark side:

Steve senses his position of weakness, and he aims to regain control. He says, “But I’m telling you: Don’t do this. Because we will walk away, we always do.” He argues that, if Mr. Richards and the rest of the town’s inhabitants stop Steve’s company, Global, from following through with their offer, Global will eventually gain the town’s land anyway, but, due to the economic downturn continuing and intensifying in the years to come, will not have to pay anything. Basically, Steve is telling Mr. Richards, Take the money now, because you’re going to lose anyway, and losing with some cash now is better than losing with nothing to show for it later.

During Steve’s remarks, the camera crosses the axis, returning to the lighter side of the diner, the side representing Steve’s dominance:

We end on the light side. Steve has come out on top. Well, at least for now.

Who would have thought that the shift of power/dominance in a conversation could be conveyed through light and camera positioning? These cinematographic choices highly enrich the scene, showing once again that film is a visual medium and that dialogue is not the only weapon when it comes to communication of ideas to an audience.

Notice that, due to the shifts in lighting/camera positioning and how these shifts align with the conversation in the scene, the camera shifts align with Steve’s point of view. Thus, this is scene is subjective and is designed for the viewer to empathize with Steve as opposed to with Mr. Richards.

Maybe DP Linus Sandgren’s originality comes from his foreign roots, but regardless of the explanation, this scene displays his brilliance and creativity. Bravo.

*** Addendum: 1/19/13. I recently rewatched Good Will Hunting, and I actually came upon the same axis-shifting movement during a conversation between Robin Williams and Matt Damon. However, in that scene, the intent of the technique was vague, compared to this instance (Promised Land), which communicates its purpose clearly. In Good Will Hunting, the first axis shift is to communicate Sean’s successful attempt to change Will’s mindset about love. The second shift in the scene is more nebulous in meaning.

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