Promised Land

Directed By: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Matt Damon, John Krasinki, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, and Titus Welliver

For all intents and purposes, this year is just about a wrap at movie theaters around the country.  There are no major new releases slated before the new year.  The Hobbit, Les Misérables, and Django Unchained should continue to rock the box office, and I'm willing to bet money on that.  With this in mind, I've decided to get a head start on the 2013 releases by checking out Matt Damon's latest film Promised Land

Steve Butler (Damon) and his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) work for a large natural gas company and travel from one small town to another to purchase drilling rights from local residents with rich deposits beneath their land.  These two are very good at this and typically buy rights from residents far below the price point designated by their company.  Having successfully purchased more drilling rights than any other teams in their corporation, they chalk it up to selling people a way out, an escape from a false farming fantasy.  Given his successes, Steve is up for a position in New York as the vice president of land management for his employer. 

For the time being, these two are in the rural community of McKinley and focused on buying rights to drill here.  McKinley is definitely emblematic of small towns everywhere.  At the local convenience store, guns, groceries, guitars, and gas are all available for purchase.  It's a town that looks like one bad dream, and it quickly becomes this for Steve and Sue.  In a town meeting about the drilling rights, local schoolteacher and retired MIT professor Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) opposes any drilling in his town.  Explaining the risks of "fracking", the technique used to obtain the natural gas, Yates proposes that the townspeople vote on whether to allow any corporation to drill in McKinley. 

With a sizable group supporting Yates’s position, the townspeople decide to take up a vote on the matter, and Steve and Sue are put in an unfamiliar position in trying to convince everyone to allow the drilling.  Money can’t buy votes in this small community.  To make matters worse, an environmentalist named Dustin Noble (John Krasinki) and his organization Athena pick up exactly where Yates leaves off in campaigning against drilling in McKinley.  For Steve and Sue, Dustin quickly becomes public enemy number one.  Meanwhile, Steve pursues a woman named Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) whom he meets at the local bar Buddy's Place.

Promised Land is a film that's on a predictable trajectory from the start.  Everyone knows exactly where this film is going.  This type of inspirational drama has been done a thousand times over.  The only real difference here is that director Gus Van Sant is tackling natural gas, fracking, and the dangers of clean energy.  While I definitely applaud Van Sant's boldness here, I can't say that I'm thoroughly impressed with the film on the whole.  Van Sant plays up stereotypical elements of this type of movie by victimizing the town of McKinley and vilifying the natural gas company.  We also get a mixed bag of performances from the cast members.

Van Sant builds this contrast between a simple small town and a ruthless corporation.  With sweeping shots of McKinley and dark, opaque cinematography, Van Sant makes the town appear utterly bleak.  His more intimate shots take us much closer to the poverty and the realization of this fading farming fantasy.  He ultimately makes the town out to be a victim of economic circumstance.  On the flip side, Van Sant makes Butler's corporation out to look like a scheming bunch of profiteers who will do anything to get what they want, including controlling all angles of the debate.  He vilifies them to the fullest extent possible.  While I understand the purpose of doing these things and agree with some of it, the issue is not quite this black and white, and Van Sant should treat it accordingly.  There’s risk inherent in everything the townspeople do, and the debate in Promised Land ignores this for the most part.  It’s not a simple conversation on whether or not to drill.  It’s a conversation about the future of this town and what industry will drive economic growth, if any, there.  Emphasizing the complexity of this debate is something that could have made for a much stronger, richer film.

Promised Land also offers a mixed bag of performances.  John Krasinki delivers a cunning, hilarious performance as Athena representative Dustin Noble.  Frances McDormand brings down the hammer in this movie as Butler's cutthroat partner Sue Thomason.  Rosemarie DeWitt gives a charming performance as local schoolteacher Alice.  At the center of all these decent supporting performances though, star Matt Damon drops the ball.  Damon simply plays Matt Damon in the film.  He doesn't create the character Steve Butler.  He just plays on his own persona and doesn't do any real acting throughout the movie.  It’s unfortunate because Damon could have done so much with this role.  Also, Hal Holbrook gives a rather disappointing performance and does nothing to really impress us.  Though he gives us a feisty old man in the first town meeting early in the movie, he gives us a tired old man throughout the rest of the film.

While I certainly enjoyed Promised Land, I'm not one who would go shouting through the mountaintops advocating this flick.  It's charming.  It has its more touching moments.  It even tackles the natural gas industry and fracking, something that's not been tackled previously on the big screen.  That being said, the film has plenty of problems.  At its core, Van Sant offers a pretty formulaic movie, and Damon delivers a performance that's less than stellar.  Promised Land gets a 0.06% rating.  Have a few rounds of beer with Gus Van Sant's latest flick.