Beautifully Acted Land Doesnít Fulfill Its Promise
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and his charmingly sarcastic partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) have come to the rural farming township of McKinley to sell the citizens on allowing their employer to mine for Natural Gas. Itís safe! Itís not intrusive! It will bring needed jobs to the community! It will help fund the rundown schools! It will make those with larger amounts of acreage rich beyond their wildest dreams! These are the claims Steve and Sue are selling, and not to put it mildly but both of them are extremely good at their respective jobs.
Frances McDormand and Matt Damon in Promised Land © Focus Features
But obstacles arise. First off, local High School science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), an M.I.T. grad and former senior level engineer for Boeing, has looked into all the pros and cons of Natural Gas and has discovered more than a few, some of them extremely dangerous, holes in the pairís seemingly innocuous pitch. Second, a driven environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), has come to town ready for a fight, using images of dead cows and devastated farmlands to make his point that allowing drilling will be dangerous for the community.
McKinley is going to vote as a town whether or not to allow the reps to go forward with their plan to get residents to sign contracts authorizing drilling. But as the days go by, as sales pitches are made by both sides, Steve canít help but begin to wonder if heís actually on the right side of this fight, learning things about himself and his company he for whatever reason refused to look at in a clear-eyed fashion at any time before this.
It should be noted upfront that Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, scripted by Damon and Krasinski from an original story by Dave Eggers (Away We Go), offers up very little in the way of surprise. Thereís one, maybe, but even to call it a shock would be something of a stretch, and by and large I had my suspicions about some of the shenanigans going on right from the start so a third act revelation hardly caught me off-guard. For the most part I knew exactly what was going to happen and where things were going to go next, Steveís moral and ethical evolution as paint-by-numbers as they come.
At the same time, Krasinski, Damon and Van Santís (the latter pair reuniting for the third time after Good Will Hunting and Gerry) little opus never bored, annoyed or bothered me. The central characters are richly drawn, both Steven and Sue so sharply written I felt either of them could have jumped off the screen at any second and sat down to watch the rest of the picture right their next to me. There are also plenty of little beats, small moments of warmth, depth and honesty that hit home, the trio delivering much of their narrative with distinct flair and welcome subtlety.
But it goes without saying Promised Land could have been much more than it is. Holbrookís science teacher is wonderfully introduced, intriguingly developed and then subsequently forgotten for a large portion of the proceedings only to reappear at just the right moment to deliver pitch-perfect fatherly advice to a wayward soul desperately in need of it. Even worse off is the luminous Rosemarie DeWitt. Sheís stranded with a one-dimensional role who ends up being nothing more than a romantic ping pong that Damon and Krasinski shuffle back and forth, the actress, so breathtaking in Your Sisterís Sister and Rachel Getting Married, deserving of much, much better.
Still, I find it difficult to come down as hard on the film as I could. McDormand steals scenes with little effort, her final conversation with Damon a impeccably refined heartbreaker that gets right to the core of a complex issue in a way nothing else in the script ever comes close to equaling. There are also tons of little moments, scenes of deep understanding and mesmeric depth that held me captivate, haunting little bits of brutal honesty that spoke volumes but did so without raising the decibel level past the point of didacticism.
Then there is Damon. The guy is proving to not just be a good actor, but a downright exceptional one. Somewhere along the line, maybe it was The Talented Mr. Ripley, it could have been his transformation into an action star with The Bourne Identity, it might have been teaming up with a cadre of talents in Oceanís 11, the guy has become one of the more intriguingly multifaceted actors working today. Fearless, keen to take risks, Damon is willing to allow audiences to despise him, knowing that if they follow a story all the way through a characterís core will speak for itself allowing them to analyze the man as a whole and not as specious fragments looking to be put back together.
I wanted more from Promised Land, that I cannot deny. The final sequences, while beautiful delivered and composed, handled with uniquely disquieting subtlety by Van Sant, are so forgone the emotional resonance of them ends up being muted. Yet thanks to the quality of the central performance, because Damon and Krasinskiís script gets so many of the little beats right, I do find value here, and as such I can hardly dissuade those interested in the subject matter or the scenario from heading to the theatre to take a look at the film for themselves.
Film Rating: ÍÍ1/2 (out of 4)