Film Review: Promised Land

Intelligent, sincere diatribe against venal corporate interests is highly watchable, only marred by an unconvincingly slick denouement.

“Fracking,” the controversial drilling technique for natural gas, is at the heart of Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land. To the small, economically hard-hit rural town of McKinley come Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), sales partners representing Global, a billion-dollar fracking corporation, with the mission of persuading the local residents to sell their land. They receive a variety of responses, from eager beavers all too willing to sign over for fast—but actually measly—bucks to staunch resistance from the more ecologically minded, headed by schoolteacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook). In addition, they have to contend with the arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental activist who definitely puts a crimp in their plans as he brings up pesky issues like the decimation of a proud agricultural tradition and the air and water pollution brought on by fracking.

Promised Land is diametrically opposed to the more challengingly “arty” Van Sant efforts like Elephant, Gerry and Last Days, with their oblique nature and logy pacing. He admirably has put himself firmly in the service of bringing this story—important in its rare feature-film address of our present-day economy—to the screen with a minimum of auteurial frills. The script, by Damon and Krasinski, has something of the cozily muckraking quality of old Frank Capra films in which smalltown mentalities uneasily rub against city-slicker agendas, and is well-acted and absorbing enough. You do come to care about this beat-down country town and its residents, but the final denouement, involving a huge plot twist and a “MacGuffin” lifted from Blow-up, feels contrived, rather negating viewer involvement. You become a bit too aware of the fact that this screenplay was indeed written by actors, and what ensues bespeaks more juicy, histrionic switcheroo opportunities than human verisimilitude, with a big ole grandstanding, change-of-faith, 11 o’clock speech for Damon.
And Van Sant’s direction may indeed be a bit too square. Although his trademark use of fast-flying clouds is present, more messy artistry here could have been used to conceal the baldness of the scripted inauthenticity.

Damon gives a brave, no-nonsense performance as a weasily unquestioning company dog, without ever once sneaking an adorable peek at the audience to be liked. His status as a true, identifiable movie star is happily proved here by the fact that you do still care about him, even with Butler’s venal, self-absorbed shallowness. Krasinski is also very good—although the character he is playing is little more than a pure contrivance—with an ingratiating, easy hipster’s charm. McDormand is reliably feisty and drily humorous, but this is a part she could have played in her sleep, and all too subsidiary. Holbrook is forceful, but I’m afraid brings something of a patented showbiz kind of intensity to his role that stands out like a sore thumb among all the strenuously natural McKinley residents. Rosemarie DeWitt adds some sweet strength as a schoolteacher love interest for the two male leads.