Directed by Gus Van Sant
Writers: John Krasinski, Matt Damon
Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand
How long is Promised Land? 106 minutes.
What is Promised Land rated? R for language..
“Land” Loses Its Promise
In certain movies, there comes a single moment that completely changes one’s opinion of it. It can be due to an unnecessary twist, an out-of-character action, or the film completely switching gears, but really any individual thing can cause viewers to re-evaluate how they view a movie. I will not spoil Gus Van Sant’s new movie Promised Land, but, suffice it to say, it has one of those, which I will call Moment X for purposes of this review. It is a shame though, because before Moment X, it was a somewhat decent film.
Directed by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Milk), Promised Land is an eco-friendly feature co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who also co-star. Damon plays Steven Butler, a representative from Global, a natural gas company that wants to buy up the land of a small farming community so it can get the delicious subterranean natural gas underneath through a process known as fracking. Krasinski brings hipster charm to Dustin Noble, an environmentalist who claims to have lost his family farm due to the negative impact of fracking and its chemicals. Along for the ride are super scientist/high school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook); Butler’s partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand); and townsperson Alice (Rosemary Dewitt, who brings a notable amount of life to an underwritten role), who also serves as a potential love interest for both Butler and Dustin. I should note here that I have not done any research about fracking before or after the movie so I cannot attest to the accuracy or inaccuracy of the film’s claims.
Obviously, the movie is not going to take the side of Big Whatever. Written and starring Film Actors Guild member Matt Damon, being about smalltown America, and having the title Promised Land, it’s not going to present a company named “Global” in the best of lights. However, the film does possess a level of ambiguity prior to Moment X. Although Butter has an irritating amount of naiveté, ignorance, and denial about his company and its methods, his belief in what he is doing is genuine. He grew up in such a farming town and saw firsthand its protracted death after the main industry collapses. While profit might be Global’s goal, there is a level of personal investment to Butler that makes him more interesting than similar Existential Executives such as Michael Clayton.
Similarly, Duncan also has a personal mission – to stop Global from initiating their scheme. His scare tactics/propaganda and personality are similar to Butler, even if he is more personable and less miserable. Pitting the two characters against one another presents both the activist and corporate sides as emotionally dedicated to their jobs while seeing the people whom they are supposed to help as pawns. It’s a cynical approach, but one that suits the story. No matter the decision, the townsfolk will lose something valuable because everyone is fighting a losing battle. And having Butler as the one who actually cares more about improving people’s lives is an interesting and well-made choice. Then Moment X happens.
Van Sant, who helmed Damon’s two previous co-written affairs (Good Will Hunting and Gerry), gives a life to the town and its citizens without romanticizing or patronizing them. He also wisely doesn’t make the land look like a paradise of lush lawns and beautiful animals; it’s muddy, brown, and poor. The performances are uniformly good with a decent amount of character humor. And, the film at least tries to bury its obvious message under watchable characters and a distrust of both sides.
But after Moment X, all of this good will disappears. Promised Land stops caring about its characters and brings its agenda to the forefront at the expense of everything else. While not surprising, it is nevertheless still disappointing. Like Global itself, Promised Land uses its heavy hands to obliterate the layers of nutrient rich top soil to reach the gooey center. In doing so, it scorches the Earth and all the living creatures in its path. A speech at the end accuses Global of manufacturing the debate and not leaving it up to the citizens to make up their own minds. The irony seems lost on the filmmakers.