PROMISED LAND Review

Gus Van Sant is a director whose work I have unfortunately never been highly exposed to. I hear the guy is rather good, but besides his 2008 Oscar contender Milk and his rather underrated 2000 film Finding Forrester I haven't seen any of his films. Yes, this does mean I've never sat down and watched the film written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that made them stars and won them Oscars. I've heard mixed things about it and seeing as it came out when I was only ten years old I have a valid excuse I think for never getting around to it. Still, this matters little as Mr. Van Sant's latest film which again stars Matt Damon is a beautifully looking tale of moral conflict that deals with an issue known as fracking. We'll get more into that interesting term later, but to draw you into why you should be interested in this film would be to say that it not only stars good, credible actors such as Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt and several other, lesser known character actors who have small parts as the towns folk opposed to the big bad corporate company coming into town and taking away their pride. Besides that, this was also written and produced by both Damon and Krasinski and was originally intended as Damon's directorial debut. Who knows what or how different this film might have been had it been made under Damon's directorial eye, we won't know until we get a chance to see that, but with what has been delivered here I can feel nothing if not appeased by the effort. There is a straightforward, matter of fact feel to the film that paints a black and white picture but doesn't stop there. It takes things a step further and adds a more complex layer of conflict we as an audience naturally place ourselves in the middle of.

Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) isn't going to allow his home to be destroyed without a fight.
If you've seen the trailers for Promised Land you likely know what we are getting here. Damon plays Steve Butler who, along with his sarcastic partner in crime Sue (McDormand) go from town to town selling the people on the promise of millions of dollars if they allow their company to drill on their land and extract the natural gas buried beneath. Steve is a professional salesman, he knows what he's doing, he comes from the same background as the people he's selling to and therefor knows how to handle them. He and Sue are miles ahead of any other team in terms of closing towns for his company's expansion plans. Once they reach another rural town along their way (the town is never specified which adds a nice bit of "this could be anywhere" feeling) they come across a man who challenges their scheme. The local science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) is more than he appears to be and challenges Steve during the town meeting pushing things to a vote before anyone is allowed to do any drilling. Once this is set in motion Steve naturally jumps into panic mode, only to be pushed further towards the edge when an activist from an environmental group shows up. Dustin Noble (Krasinski) plays the role of the earnest commoner who shows up to side with the towns people and seemingly put Damon and his billion dollar company in their place. Though the film epitomizes a story where we know exactly where it is going, though I was surprised by a fourth quarter twist, it still in fact proves a solid journey and wraps up its own story nicely while making us think about the long term effects of its message.

What is most appealing about the film, besides the naturalistic play between the gifted actors, is the way in which Van Sant places us very subtly in the state of mind of his choice character at any given moment. There is one scene in particular where Damon is having dinner with Mr. Yates and his wife after being utterly defeated in his battle to successfully complete his job. The director shows Damon at the table, the shot placed just over his shoulder with the background out of focus. The other actors in the scene continue their conversation but it becomes as muddled as the background. It simply sums up the weight of what the character is facing. It allows the audience to truly understand what Steve keeps telling everyone, that he is not really "a bad guy". That he can use these techniques in a scene to shift the point of view of the audience for what he needs them to feel is both fascinating and complimenting to the overall point of the film. Though Damon is poised as the "bad guy" here his dilemma is not one that goes unmentioned. We are more often than not in Damon's corner despite his antagonist role and though the agenda for the film is clear from the beginning we are given a well rounded look at an argument with ups and downs to every side. In this, the towns people are equally well-represented. Not only is Krasinski his usual, charming self that lends a leading voice to the opposing team but the farmers of the community are not depicted as stupid or ignorant (with the exception of Lucas Black) but instead as competent people who have a good amount of pride in their humble way of life, and rightly so.

Matt Damon and John Krasinski in Promised Land.
The tone of the film is itself also more than competent. Though it does at times drag and certain promising story lines are left to be undiscovered the tone is important because it captures the honest feeling of a small town. The comfortable settings and easy trappings of that lifestyle. There is a natural camaraderie in the towns people, but it is more than that as well. There is a self-awareness, an intelligence and this not only creates a worthy foe for Damon and his plans, but it gives us a tougher time deciding what side we should stand on. Ultimately though, we know what side we are on or are at least meant to be on once the film ends and the man with his name above the title makes the widely accepted transition from a guy who thinks he is a good guy to someone who truly is a stand up guy. I rather enjoyed the film, I don't care that it has such a decisive agenda, I don't even mind that it tried to manipulate me into thinking one way and painting such a typical picture of the big, looming corporate world that threatens to bring down such a humble way of life. No matter how true that cliche tends to be, nor how well we know the story we are being delivered Promised Land never comes off as overly preachy and has some real moments of impact. Both Damon and Krasinski get their moment to shine with poignant and perfectly delivered speeches. I only wish we would have been able to spend a little more time with Damon and Rosemarie DeWitt's Alice; otherwise don't tease us with an unnecessary love story when Damon and McDormand already have such great chemistry. The same can be said for McDormand with Titus Welliver's shop owner (which I would have much rather seen than Damon and DeWitt) but besides these minor complaints and the occasional blandness from which the story suffers this is a well made, well-intentioned film that at the very least has the power to make us aware.