Wim Wenders' 'Land of Plenty' (2004)

I admit that I have a bit of distance from the events of 9/11. Yes, I was living in the United States on September 11, 2001, I remember where I was when I heard, and I have been living in the US for the past 5 years. But I have never seen the footage of the planes crashing into the towers or the towers burning and falling. I have purposely avoided that film because I feared my reaction to them. I feared that repeatedly seeing those horrific, violent images would affect my objectivity, would inspire the paranoia and acrimony that consumed so many people.

Land of Plenty explores the aftermath of 9/11 more sympathetically than I imagined possible. I credit Wim Wender's German nationality for the film's unique approach to the situation. Wenders chooses to make one of his protagonists a young woman, Lana (Michelle Williams), returning from years living in the West Bank. She lives and works amongst the homeless of Los Angeles, which gives the United States a very sympathetic face. This United States is not the monolith of prosperity, greed, and capitalism that the hijackers attacked on 9/11. Paul, Lana's Vietnam veteran and homeland security-obsessed uncle, represents the possible bad guy of the film, but actor John Diehl and the screenplay give a very sympathetic, humanized portrayal. Characterized as suffering the effects of Agent Orange, Wenders also chooses to have Paul constantly listening to conservative radio in his surveillance van. Paul seems more the victim of an interfering government and paranoid cultural climate than he seems an out-and-out racist. While the audience suspects that Youssef is not the terrorist that Paul imagines, Wenders goes a step further in inoculating Muslims against the image of them as terrorists by dressing Hassan in a slightly too-tight, bright green tracksuit. How can anyone be threatened by a man wearing a tracksuit? Hassan is also cheerful and devoid of any bitterness he might feel concerning his half-brother's death or the cultural climate of the United States.

The pacing lags slightly in the beginning, but the film picks up once Lana and Paul make contact. Despite their radically different personalities and viewpoints, both Lana and Paul have difficulty making connections. Paul isolates himself out of paranoia and illness, spending all day alone in a van trying to protect the United States from terrorists. Having emerged from an environment in which Americans were openly hated, Lana remains guarded. She attempts to make connections with the homeless people with whom she lives and works, but they do not readily embrace her. She retreats into a world of technology, plugging her iPod into her ears, communicating with a friend in the West Bank via IM. Even when she prays, what she says to God does not convey her real thoughts. Paul and Lana recognize in each other an opportunity to connect, but both approach the connection with caution.

Land of Plenty is a good little indie flick that has not received the attention that it deserves. While the acting is strong across the board, Michelle Williams lights up the screen. I don't know whether to credit Williams' acting, the cinematography, or both. Williams presence in this film is practically hypnotic. When she is on screen you cannot look away. [Insert another cliché of your choice here] Though I did not always enjoy the writing on Dawson's Creek, I always admired Williams' acting, and her performances in this film and Brokeback Mountain suggest that she is a talent to watch.