‘Promised Land’ Review
“I'm not a bad guy.” Matt Damon's character Steve Butler says this enough times in Gus Van Sant's new film 'Promised Land' that he probably believes it. He also says it enough for us in the audience to know that, whether knowingly or not, he's clearly the bad guy.
He is a representative of a natural gas company, one about to get a big promotion, because he seems to have the knack for getting cash-strapped rural landowners to sign over drilling rights. He claims it is because he's from a small town himself and understands what economic hardships can do to a person. We'll soon learn that it also due to his remarkable ability to see only what he wants to see.
All but a prologue in 'Promised Land' is shot in a small Pennsylvania farming community. Damon and his cohort Frances McDormand ride into town in a not-fancy car, buy some local-looking clothes and being their door-to-door pitch. What they offer is a signing bonus and talk of potential riches and a brighter future for the children. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it's because it quite possibly is. At a town hall meeting Hal Holbrook and his ten tons of nobility stand up and use the F word: Fracking.
Holbrook, the local science teacher (but also retired from years working at Boeing - “he's teaching for fun!” the opposition research incredulously shouts) warns that environmental woes may come with Damon's money. In time a leaflet-carrying activist in the form of John Krasinski shows up and the fight is on for the hearts and minds of the community.
Among the more interesting angles of 'Promised Land' is how our sympathies are torn in different directions. It is only natural to root for our main character. It's Matt Damon, after all, and, remember, he says “I'm not a bad guy” a lot. Nevertheless, this is a movie, and when a movie has a big corporation (with a generic name like “Global” no less) surely they are the ones up to no good.
The entire second half of the film goes into “this is a movie” overdrive, with all the shoe-horned love interests and preposterous plot twists you can imagine. (Oh, if only anyone bothered to use Google, so many problems could have been avoided.) This is a formula film in the worst case of the word, where big honkin' icons like barns draped in flags are meant to cover up the fact that no one offers any real solutions for the fundamental problems facing the town once our heroes walk through the screen door off the sun-dappled porch.
Still, 'Promised Land' squeaks by on the strength of its performances. From top to bottom all are great, particularly Frances McDormand. (In an unspoken nod to corporate sexism – she's clearly the better of the two workers, yet he's the one getting the promotion.) Holbroke also gets a truly terrific line when he remarks that he's “lucky to be old enough to have a shot at dying with dignity.” I hope that when I'm his age and faced with a moral dilemma I can whip that one out. Krasinski is super likeable as is Rosemarie DeWitt as the focus of an unlikely love triangle.
Despite the film's predictability there are enough spaces for our company to stretch out. The town characters are a mixed bag – some are sharp and noble, some are rowdy dumbasses – kinda like in real life. The greek chorus scenes at the local bar and coffee shop are terrific. The music is pure NPR adult contemporary and everybody looks good in blue jeans.
Annoyingly, 'Promised Land' will no doubt be dubbed an issue picture, and something of a flashpoint for the very real controversy about fracking. Due to the necessary twists in the plot, I actually have no real knowledge about the safety of the procedure or its economic impact on towns in need of a new industry. I suppose I could take a cue from my own criticism and use Google, but you'd think I'd come out of this movie knowing a few facts.
'Promised Land' opens in select theaters on December 28th.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.