By Andrew Miller (Los Angeles, California, US)
Promised Land: 2017, 14 mins. Directed by David Trevino. Starring Michael Whelan. Written by Trevino & Whelan.
In his novel Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy wrote this unsettling and irrefutable observation: “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures,” his character, the fearsome Judge Holden says. “As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him… that is the way it was and will be.” The spirit of Judge Holden’s biblical-feeling declaration weighs heavily over director David Trevino’s new short war film Promised Land.
As the movie begins, we meet Sergeant Dante. Dante is an American solider stranded in the desert of Afghanistan, the lone survivor of some sort of attack that’s cost the lives of all his comrades. Sergeant Dante coldly says farewell to their corpses and sets out into the desert alone. The film’s forward narrative chronicles Sergeant Dante’s journey of survival across the hellish landscape, which at times feel like hallucinogenic Old Testament wanderings, all while cutting in flashbacks to the recent past of Dante among his living platoon, showing us how he got into his present situation and illuminating Dante’s cold, brutal, and oddly pragmatic nature.
Promised Land isn’t for the squeamish. Trevino abandons, with confidence, any effort to deliver sympathetic or relatable characters to his audience. As a committed war film it sets itself aside in tone and content from the solipsistic, slice-of-life narratives one tends to encounter so often at short film festivals. By avoiding disingenuous notions of artificial heroism, simplistic portrayals of wartime morality and avoiding the clichéd implication that all post 9/11-era U.S. service members are blind imperialist thugs aimed at securing oil or whatever, Promised Land assuredly distinguishes itself further.
Standup comedian Michael Whelan, appearing here in only his second film, stars as Dante. His character is completely without reservations about killing and war and is willing to casually espouse harsh Darwinian logic on the subject of violence. Whelan’s performance brings a disturbing and seductive authenticity to a film he is also credited as a co-writer of, along with Trevino. Before entering his current careers Whelan served in the United States Navy, spending time in the Middle East. Like most of the funniest comedians, he is at home with dark material.
Promised Land has flaws. The low budget, at times, shows in the production value. A pivotal scene involving an act of violence is awkwardly staged and unintentionally funny. What seems to be intended as a late surprise in the short running time is over-telegraphed. Most viewers will probably figure it out before they should. The choice of naming the main character Dante is heavy handed and obvious. Promised Land isn’t to be admired so much as a whole, but for its individual searing moments of darkness and intensity.
The best scene is a lengthy flashback that comes early on. Sergeant Dante and two of his fellow soldiers sit around a nighttime campfire. An innocent looking solider shares his motive for joining the military: “I joined so I could show my father that I’m a man.” At this, Dante laughs in his comrade’s face.
Sergeant Dante shares the story of his first combat kill. I won’t spoil all the details, but the story has a harrowing passage about Dante discovering a little Afghani girl who is being brutalized by her Islamist captors. Whelan is riveting in his delivery of this monologue – as he pauses to smoke a cigarette before the gothic glow of the fire, he might seem like a militarized Rust Chole. Whelan and Trevino’s words here remind us of an unsettling yet irrefutable fact: Far too many of Western civilization’s most dangerous organized enemies are powered to war by a sincere religion-based desire for paradise. Islamist killers and sadists are seeking a Promised Land.
Representing the other side of the war, Sergeant Dante, a heartless man who joined the service “To kill and get paid for it,” clearly sees no reason to believe in a Promised Land at all. Only war matters to him; it’s all that matters – and with this we are reminded again of Blood Meridian’s heavy spirit and another unsettling Judge Holden axiom: “Men of God and men of war have strange affinities.”
Promised Land is gritty and surreal. It bluntly reminds us that there are no easy solutions to war and there likely, and unfortunately, never will be. It is a memorable and confident short film that will make you curious about what projects David Trevino and Michael Whelan are up to next.