Whenever I think of Gus Van Sant, I think of the inspired director of films I love like Milk and Good Will Hunting (And yes, I love Good Will Hunting, sorry if that’s a deal breaker for some of you). Then, I watch a movie like Promised Land and remember he’s also the director of films that nobody loves, like the Vince Vaughn remake of Psycho. It’s times like that which make me think that Van Sant is one of those directors who can only really shine when he has a great set of performances or a touching script to support him, and neither of those is present in his most recent film. Damon and McDormand elevate things as much as they can, but all in all Promised Land puts too much focus on its message and not enough on the film itself.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a salesman/representative for a natural gas company called Global Corporation (seriously, that’s the most creative name they could think of). Along with his partner Sue (Frances McDormand), Steve travels from small town to small town in the american midwest, using his regional roots to establish a report with the local townspeople and convince them to sell their land to Global for the purposes of Natural Gas Extraction through a process known as Fracking. After being notified of the possibility of a huge promotion, Steve and Sue travel to yet another rural town (which I don’t believe is ever named) to try
to gain a foothold in the state. Everything goes smoothly until a science teacher and ex-engineer working at the local high school (Hal Holbrook) starts to get the townspeople to question the impact of Global’s operations. Matters become worse when an environmentalist (John Krasinski) shows up with a story of how Global’s Fracking destroyed his farm, forcing Steve to do everything he can to bring the locals back to his side. Along the way, he is forced to re-evaluate everything he believes in about the company he is working for.
I have always liked Matt Damon, and all things considered he does a good job of bringing his usual charisma and charm to his role. His back and forths with Rosemarie DeWitt’s character reminded me a lot of the chemistry he had with Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, but all of that likability he has just makes it even more off-putting when the movie has his character start representing “the evils of money”. The funny thing for me is that his “Fuck You Money” rant towards the end of the film is one of the more compelling arguments of the film, even though it’s for the side that we’re apparently supposed to root against (made even more obvious by the speech ending with him getting punched).
McDormand is a great counterpart for Damon here, but I just wish she had been given more to do. She has some nice banter given to her and is decently rounded out on a human level, but she just isn’t given that many chances to make a lasting impression. Hal Holbrook was actually one of my favorite characters as well, though that’s probably because his character given the most agreeable and reasonable roles of the entire film.
And then we have John Krasinski. I am a HUGE fan of The Office, and as a result I always root for Mr. Krasinski when I see him taking on a movie role. That makes it all the more painful when he either chooses terrible movies (think License to Wed) or fills his his time with a multitude of commercial voice-overs. I think part of the problem with John is that no matter how many different roles he takes on, I can only ever see him as Jim from The Office. Part of that isn’t entirely his fault, but at the same time he just doesn’t melt into his roles like most good actors are able to, regardless of what characters their chiefly known for. When you combine that with how blatantly political his character is as well as a completely un-needed love triangle created between him, Damon and DeWitt, Krasinski ended up being one of the weakest parts of the movie for me.
Promised Land is a perfect example of what happens when you make a movie with the primary intention of proving a political (or in this case environmental) point rather than trying to make it first and foremost a good movie. I’m neither against Fracking nor for it, but I do believe it is a significant and complex issue, and more importantly an issue for which a 90 minute movie is NOT the best format for addressing. The movie tries it’s hardest weave character development into the issue itself, but it always feels like the character development takes a back seat to the question; To Frack or not to Frack. Personally, I think the most eye-roll worthy scene of the movie comes from Krasinski’s grossly oversimplified “explanation” of how Fracking works to a group of grade schoolers in a classroom setting.
The Verdict: 5.5/10 Nothing Special
+ Damon is as charming and earnest as ever
+ Damon’s personal dilemma is interesting when it’s focused on him and not Fracking
– Way too much focus on the issues it’s trying to illuminate
– Krasinski will never be anything but Jim Halpert
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Cinematic Katzenjammer: 6/10
Amonymous Reviews: 3/5
Average: 5.9/10 – Passable