Saturday, December 8, 2012


It confounds me that "Promised Land" is widely held as an awards contendor this year. It makes sense considering this is director Gus Van Sant's first time reuniting with Matt Damon as writer since 1997's Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting." What doesn't make sense, however, is the final result that turns out from this second-time collaboration. This time Damon is aided by co-writer John Krasinski (the two star in the film together), and it works as a gentle, well-acted drama about small town life and a big environmental decision; ultimately, however, the film undermines its own dramatic potential instead to make way for preachy political sentiment and in-your-face agenda.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate salesman for a large drilling company called Global who's sent to a rural farming community to convince the locals that drilling for natural gas is the best solution to solving their economic woes. The deals struck with selling their land to drilling would give them more money than they could imagine -- but of course, there are plenty of strings attached. Called fracking (I'll spare you the Googling), the process to retrieve natural gas from beneath the ground inadvertently pollutes the land above killing all crops and livestock. It's shrugged off as a potential, but not inevitable, hazard.

Arriving in town with his amiable co-worker, Sue (Frances McDormand), she and Steve seem like nice enough people. They're certainly not villains, and they're only doing the job they're told to do. It's a compelling contradiction put into play early on that's further complicated by the arrival of a grassroots environmentalist guy named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) who's really looking out for the citizens, and who very well might be right about the dangers of fracking, but comes across as the bad guy to both Steve and Sue's efforts. Once this character base is set up, however, the film has nowhere else to go.

The story finds side routes to go including a wobbly love interest for Steve in the form of local bar-goer, middle-aged single woman Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). They spend one drunken night together, a little interest evolves, and that's about it. Likewise, Sue finds friendship in a shop owner (Titus Welliver). Will these two out-of-towners find enough to like in this farming town to realize what they're selling and halt their dirty business? Don't let me spoil it.

There's a bit of comedic fun between Sue and Steve's half-hearted efforts to get the town on their side while Dustin runs circles around them almost effortlessly. The real stand-out, though, is Hal Hobrook as a grisled old school teacher who serves as the first opposition against Steve and the most convincing. This is followed shortly by Scoot McNairy's (last seen in "Argo") one-man representation of middle America. When almost validating itself as an ode to humbling, homegrown mentality, "Promised Land" introduces a late morality twist that doesn't so much work as character development but rather a cheap screenplay device. Once Steve watches as everything he believed in crumbles before him, Van Sant's film affirms itself as an overly opinionated and lazy Oscar hopeful.

No comments:

Post a Comment