LAND OF PLENTY is nowhere near as powerful a title for this brilliant Wim Wenders film as the original working title, ANGST AND ALIENATION IN AMERICA. This is another Wim Wenders wonder of filmmaking, a quiet little powerhouse of a movie that should be required viewing for all of us. Wenders wrote this moving piece with assistance from Scott Derrickson and Michael Meredith and directs a sterling cast in an exploration of the American psyche post 9/11, and few writer/directors could have keener insight into the state of mind of a country at odds with itself and the rest of the world.
Lana (Michelle Williams) is flying back to the US after a two-year stay on the West Bank. She is the daughter of missionaries, having lived her life in Africa and other missionary fields and she is flying home after her mother's death to deliver a letter to her uncle Paul (John Diehl), a damaged Vietnam vet who has cut himself off from his family and the rest of life and in response to 9/11, his mind being obsessed with tracking Sleeper Cells to destroy terrorists in his own homemade surveillance van. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Lana is met by Henry (Wendell Pierce) who is a pastor who runs a mission for the homeless of Los Angeles and provides Lana with a bleak room and a job in the kitchen of the mission. Lana is full of praise for God for all things, the optimistic evangelical girl who fails to recognize evil. One member of the mission bunkhouse is a Pakistani Hassan (Shaun Toub) whose garments and fixation on boxes of Borax alerts Paul to his possible involvement as a terrorist.
Lana contacts Paul, desires to connect with him, but Paul is aloof, obsessed with his 'mission' to ferret out terrorists. When Hassan is the victim of a drive-by shooting Lana is devastated at the loss of a human being while Paul is convinced Hassan was hit by a larger organization. Paul with his colleague Jimmy (Richard Edson) discover Hassan has a brother who lives in Trona (outside of Death Valley). Together Lana and Paul transport the corpse of Hassan to his brother Youssef (Bernard White) who lives in a hut in Trona: Lana is committed to doing the right thing, Paul sees an entry into more evidence for evil to quash. While Lana is warmly entertained by Youssef, Paul investigates the town and finds that the Borax boxes of Hassan's business were innocent means of washing carpets imported from Pakistan. The coming together of Youssef, Lana, and Paul finally achieves meaning when Paul reads the letter from his sister, Lana's mother, who somehow manages to erase all lines of prejudice, bigotry, religious differences, misunderstanding - finally giving breathing room to the damaged souls of the brotherhood of man the three represent.
Wenders manages to bathe his story in the light of reality yet maintain an unprejudiced stance in moving his characters through their paths of revelation. The camera wanders a bit, the music blends perhaps too heavily, and the pieces of the puzzle don't always fit together - much like life doesn't always fall into place the way we expect. But there is much to learn from Wenders' wisdom and with the aid of perfect performances from Michelle Williams, John Diehl, and Wendell Pierce he has created an indelible work. A fine film for us all to ponder. Grady Harp, November 06