The Promised Land (a.k.a., The Wettest County in the World)

Author: Nick Cave
Genre: Drama/Historical/Action
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

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Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

Near the end of Prohibition, West Virginia brothers struggle with a bootlegging operation as political pressures mount.

Synopsis:

1918. At age 7, JACK BONDURANT watches his older brothers FORREST (14) and HOWARD (11) drag a diseased pig into the barn. Jack shoots the pig, but it doesn’t die. Jack continues to shoot, but it refuses to die. Finally, Forrest slits its throat. The older Jack (20s) narrates in voiceover about how it’s said that violence follows his family, but Jack disagrees — he thinks his family seeks violence out. Jack continues to narrate that the Spanish flu epidemic killed several family members, including his mother, and it nearly killed Forrest, but he recovered. This started the legend that the Bondurant brothers can’t be killed. Jack believes that legend is wrong, too.

1931. With Jack’s help, Howard brazenly sells illegal liquor in front of SHERIFF HODGES and his deputies. Hodges doesn’t seem to mind. Jack and Howard return to Forrest’s legitimate business, a gas station, to load up supplies to take to a family of African-Americans, the Deshazos. Fearful, Forrest insists on going with his brothers. At the Deshazo’s isolated cabin, matriarch IDA BELLE invites them in to share a few drinks. They’ve sold her whiskey they call “White Lightning” for the loud, thunderous noise people hear after drinking it. Jack is shocked by its kick. Ida Belle mourns the loss of her children — two died in the war, one died of the flu, and now her latest child has died. Howard starts laughing at her. Ida Belle insists Howard is insane, evil, and inhuman. A group of men, who have come to mourn, come to Ida Belle’s defense. Howard tries to fight them but gets his ass thoroughly kicked. Forrest comes to Howard’s defense. Jack, meanwhile, is so overwhelmed by the screeching he collapses.

Later, Jack and his friend CRICKET PATE test whiskey made in Cricket’s homemade still. It turns out horribly. Jack insists they need a good still, and they need to be able to make a lot so they can bring it to Forrest. The brothers visit a nearby town, Rocky Mount, where bootlegger FLOYD BANNER impress Jack with his brazen displays of criminal activity, up to and including shooting at a police car with a tommy gun in broad daylight. In the restaurant that forms part of his service station, the waitress, MAGGIE, is attacked by a couple of hopheads demanding free liquor. Forrest comes to her defense, and after a wild fight, the hopheads leave. Afterward, Forrest awkwardly flirts with Maggie before sending her home. He goes out to start his truck when he’s attacked by the hopheads. They slit his throat. Maggie, unwilling to deny her attraction, decides to turn back and make her intentions known. She finds Forrest on the ground, bleeding.

Unable to find forest, Jack leads a search party. Eventually they find the patch of drying blood, which makes Jack think to call the hospital. At the hospital, Jack learns Forrest survived the attack. The doctor is astounded to report that Forrest allegedly walked the 12 miles from his station to the hospital. Later, when Forrest has regained consciousness and feels a little better, Jack talks revenge. Forrest isn’t interested in petty revenge — he’s only interested in business. Forrest is moved out of the hospital, and Maggie moves into Forrest’s home in the station, under the guise of helping him recover. At a Mennonite farm, Jack and Howard shuck corn for their whiskey. Jack notices a cute girl, BERTHA, making eyes at him. He tells Howard that Cricket has a new still, but Howard reminds him that Forrest doesn’t want Jack in the business. Two sheriffs’ deputies show up at Forrest’s station with a summons regarding his illegal activities. They tell him the summons can go away if he “plays ball.” Forrest immediately pummels both of them, getting Jack and Howard’s attention. Hodges shows up with RAKES, a special deputy brought in specifically to help with the county bootlegging problem. Rakes is sinister but practical — he’s willing to stomp out their racket, but if they pay a percentage of what they make, they can sell liquor throughout the county untouched. Forrest refuses, noting that nobody touches him now. Rakes implies that will change.

Later that morning, Jack meets Cricket at the cabin of a huge, slightly insane woman called AUNT WINNIE. Cricket’s “new still” is actually the tank from her gravity pump. Jack is appalled at the stupidity, but the still works. They sell make a batch of whiskey and sell it throughout the day, until Rakes and some other deputies beat down the door, demanding their cut of the money. Jack refuses, so Rakes gets violent and destroys the still. Worse than that, he sends men to tamper with the livestock on the Bondurant farm, making them ill. When Jack and Howard realize this, they’re both livid. Later, Jack drinks some White Lightning to work up the courage to go to a service at the Mennonite church. He’s welcomed there, but when the aural hallucinations kick in, Jack flips out and runs out of the church, shoeless. Cricket comes up with a new idea for a still, but Jack dismisses it. He’s realized concentrating on manufacturing is the wrong end of the business — they need to get in on distribution, with the help of a friend in Rocky Mount who has connections to Floyd Banner. Jack tries to sell Forrest on the idea by pointing out that Roosevelt will likely win the upcoming election and end Prohibition, which will end their business, so they need to cash in. Before Forrest even has the chance to get dismissive, TIZWELL — the pastor of the Mennonite church and Bertha’s father — arrives to chew Jack out for his behavior and return his boots. His brothers laugh at Jack.

The brothers meet with a group of local bootleggers to discuss accepting the deal with CARTER LEE, the Commonwealth’s Attorney responsible for the recent shakedowns. The others are practical, but Forrest continues to adamantly refuse to give up any money to anyone. The brothers are forced to stand by him. Jack tries to sell Howard on his blockading plan, but Howard refuses to get involved. Dressing in his nicest suit — which is not very nice — Jack loads his father’s Model T with Forrest’s liquor and heads to Rocky Mount with Cricket, where they meet up with GUMMY WALSH, who introduces them to Floyd, who has his men — among them the hopheads who jumped Forrest — prepare to kill them. In the process of begging for his life, Jack lets slip that he’s Forrest’s brother. Floyd suddenly gets respectful, and he allows Jack and Cricket to continue bringing him as much liquor as he possibly can. Jack’s pleased and spends some of his money on fancy new clothes, a camera, and a car. Forrest is shocked and angered to hear what Jack has done. Jack argues that it’s the best option for all of them with Rakes on their tail. Forrest agrees.

After flirting with Bertha, she agrees to go out on a date with him. He tries to give her the camera as a gift, but her religion forbids her from taking it. Instead, he snaps a photo of her, then drives her into Roanoke City to see a movie. She’s stunned by the big-city lifestyle, and even more stunned by the emotional impact of the movie. He surprises her with a beautiful new dress, but it upsets Bertha — she can’t wear it any more than she can keep the photograph. Jack tells Bertha he wants to take her away from her life, but she denies that’s what she wants. Jack treats her to one last surprise — he shows her their still, where Cricket now works dilligently with Howard. None of them realizes Rakes and his deputies are spying until they lunge out of the trees. All but Howard immediately run away. Jack turns back when he hears Howard screaming. He shoots at the deputies, who flee, and holds a shotgun to Rakes’s head. Jack pulls the trigger, but it’s empty. Howard sends Jack away. Rakes brings his deputies back, and they blow up the stills.

Forrest blames Jack for leading Rakes right to the stills, now that he’s strutting around like Al Capone. Jack apologizes for losing the money, and it makes Forrest angry that Jack thinks it’s about the money. Rakes kills Cricket, making it look like a drowning. When Forrest hears that, he decides to get them all involved in unloading the last of their liquor — four trucks’ worth. They enlist the help of a friend, DANNY, to drive the fourth truck. Before they leave, Maggie protests, saying she’s not going to find Forrest dying again and drive him to the hospital. Forrest is shocked to learn he didn’t actually walk the 12 miles. Forrest insists on going. The next morning, the brothers and Danny prepare. As they speed through Rocky Mount, deputies spot them and give chase, shooting at the brothers. Rakes and Hodges have blocked a bridge. Hodges tries to keep things civil, allowing Danny to go home if the others turn themselves in. The brothers refuse to give it up, so Rakes shoots Danny in the head, prompting Forrest to shoot Rakes. Rakes goes wild, shooting all three of the brothers. Hodges stops Rakes from flat-out killing Howard.

Jack and Forrest wake in the same hospital room, where Floyd explains that Carter Lee has agreed to pay for their medical bills as long as they don’t file charges against the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Meanwhile, Carter is being indicted because of his scheme. When Jack is well enough, he goes to Tizwell to declare his intention to marry Bertha, but the family is distracted by a group of dogs who froze to death after being left outside overnight. Tizwell finds the photo of Bertha and is offended enough to send Jack away. Now that they know Maggie came back for Forrest, the brothers go after the hopheads, killing them under the assumption that the men raped her. In voiceover, Jack explains that as soon as Carter Lee was put on trial, people who could testify against him start turning up dead. Rakes also turned up dead “mysteriously,” but Howard is shown killing him. Jack does marry Bertha, and the Bondurant clan settled down — except Forrest, who becomes a drunk and stumbles into Jack’s farm one snowy night and freezes to death in the unheated back bedroom.

Comments:

The Promised Land attempts to create a sort of backwoods take on The Untouchables. Despite offering an interesting glimpse into Prohibition-era bootlegging, the script suffers from too many story and character problems to be dramatically compelling. As written, it merits a pass.

Perhaps the script’s biggest obstacle, which it fails to overcome, is the fact that its central characters are vicious, awful people. Rather than accepting this and giving insight that will allow audiences to understand and empathize with the bad behavior of Forrest, Howard, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Jack, the writer tries instead to excuse the brothers’ bad behavior by sticking them into romantic subplots designed to show their more positive qualities.

It’s a gamble that doesn’t pay off; the romances don’t overshadow the brothers’ propensity for greed and unnecessary violence. The two romantic foils, Bertha and Maggie, don’t get enough depth to explain why either of them would be interested in, respectively, Jack or Forrest. As with the brothers, a little bit of empathy goes a long way toward making these characters believable, but the writer doesn’t put forth the effort.

Similarly, Special Deputy Rakes is portrayed as almost cartoonishly over-the-top in his violent actions and casual corruption. This seems to be yet another tactic to make the brothers seem more likable — relatively speaking, they are easier to like than Rakes, but that’s only because the man is a ridiculous caricature whose only purpose is to menace and make the brothers seem more justified in their recklessness.

The scattershot, deliberately paced first act introduces the character and setting, but the script doesn’t give any indication of where the story is headed until Rakes shows up at the start of the second act. Rakes’s introduction, unfortunately, also introduces a fatal misstep: by making Rakes so corrupt as to offer a simple deal in exchange for ignoring the brothers’ bootlegging, the fact that they refuse so adamantly only serves to make the brothers’ seem greedy and hypocritically self-righteous. Considering the orgy of violence contained in the second and third acts, a percentage of their huge profits seems like a small price to pay to be left alone. The writer hints at “pride” as a lazy explanation for the brothers’ refusal, but no clear or compelling reason is ever given.

The rest of the second act plays less like a full dramatic story than a series of vignettes showing various aspects of the bootlegging lifestyle interspersed with showdowns with the cops. These vignettes do eventually build to the climactic car chase and shooting match, but until that point, the chunks of the story seem oddly disconnected from each other, which creates jarring tonal shifts when the writer switches from brooding drama to sweet-natured romance, rather than integrating the various subplots into a more fluid, cohesive whole. Unlike similar vignette-driven gangster films like The Godfather or Goodfellas, this script does not have strong enough characters to sustain this sort of structure.

After the climactic chase, the story peters out without a particularly satisfying resolution. Jack hastily narrates how the story turns out — with a montage showing scenes from some of what he describes — rather than letting the loose ends play out in a more organic way. For instance, the last-second introduction of frozen dogs to parallel to Forrest’s similar death feels more like a lazy cheat than heady symbolism.

The Promised Land is a structural mess that will require major work in order to attract a wide audience. Its subject matter alone is not enough to hook moviegoers.

Posted by D. B. Bates on November 4, 2009 12:16 AM