“Mr. van Sant handles the shallow material better than most ever would. He never talks down to the audience, nor does he spoon-feed easy answers to further a one-dimensional, anti-corporate agenda that ever-so-corporate Hollywood is always accused of having. He lets the moral dilemmas and topical issues remain complex and unresolved, along with saving the preachy lectures for an after-screening discussion. Erin Brockovich , this is thankfully not.”
Promised Land, Movie Review
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same can be said about films like Gus van Sant’s Book of Genesis-inspired Promised Land. Apparently, the film’s co-writer/star, Matt Damon, was originally going to direct instead of starring in yet another Bourne Identity sequel before deciding that he would not do as good of a job juggling so much at once when he could get his Good Will Hunting/Gerry director to do it for him. The result is an ambitious yet accessible story about real long-term problems that overreaches its grasp and its all-star cast cannot solve.
The serious issue of this self-servicing film is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” If Promised Land breaks any (figurative) ground in filmmaking, it does it by teaching the audience what fracking even is. Without revealing too much about the actual story, fracking is a controversial loosening up of natural gas by pumping chemical 8,000 ft underground (yes, I had to look it up). Not surprisingly, it has been accused of killing farm animals and making farming families subsequently go bankrupt by environmentalists. This is where our corporate salespeople, played by Mr. Damon and Frances McDormand come along. These city slickers have ventured out into the wilderness of Podunk, Middle America. This is apparently a place so uninformed and culturally ignorant where even its own residents don’t know the difference between Iowa and Ohio, a place where political rallies are held in high school gymnasiums, a place where open-mic night in a dive bar is the gateway to virtually any kind of local acceptance, a place where there is only one science teacher with enough education to shoot holes in the snake oil-esque sales pitch Mr. Damon’s character, Steve, is trying to feed to the town’s population to vote natural gas into effect. Suffice to say that these salespeople have a seriously long uphill climb ahead of them. Not to worry, the outcome of this is never really in doubt.
The script problems start very early in the film. If you need helping in figuring out that Mr. Damon’s Steve Butler character is going to keep scoffing at the notion of small town life the whole time, you need to see more films. This is a prototypical conversion story at its most schizophrenically banal/moving with the wrong focus. And the epic feel of an Avatar, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even Dances with Wolves isn’t there to amuse us with its spectacle. Steve is out of his depth trying to swindle this crowd, and the writing doesn’t do the subject justice. One would expect that the co-writer of Good Will Hunting can display the same common touch with the written word that his character does with the unsuspecting public. Mr. Damon’s writing here suggests he needs to spend a little more time developing stories than he does starring in blockbuster films. For such a movie about such an important issue, the film spends too much time trying to sell the audience on contrived character developments and plot twists that even a casual viewer and/or anyone with a Tumblr account could see coming a mile way. The ultimate irony being that these surprisingly well-meaning salespeople characters are being hawked to audiences by over-qualified actors who transcend their own material with the same type of condescending sales jargon that their characters exhibit, convincing themselves and us that this is an relevant story that needs to be told in such a painfully drawn-out, conventional matter. The symbolism is displayed as obviously as the town’s store signs, even showing Mr. Damon pitching his product in front of a strategically placed American flag.
I need to also mention that the monotony is broken up by the arrival of the other co-screenwriter/star John Krasinski as the rather tellingly named Dustin Noble, an environmentalist with a hidden agenda (the original story was by Dave Eggers, but he thankfully didn’t get a role). Mr. Krasinski doesn’t display the same amount of gravitas his co-stars do, but adds a deft lighter touch to what could have been a one-note caricature. Not surprisingly, it is the female performances that keep the action compelling. The devine Miss McDormand’s Sue Thomason is a reminder why she needs more leading roles and the charismatic Rosemarie DeWitt’s Alice is a love interest so bland she isn’t even given a last name (very much like Minnie Driver’s character in GWH). Hal Holbrook, Scoot McNairy, and Lucas Black lend reliable support as well.
This film represents a real step down for Mr. van Sant. While I was beginning to tire of his aggressively artistic, mainstream-shunning independent films of the 2000s with the loose tetralogy of Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park, I felt that the critical and commercial success of 2008’s Milk would cadapult him to the front-running ranks of internationally respected auteurs that can connect with the masses and would allow him to write his own ticket. Instead, it just got him an interview to direct the final Twilight films (which he thankfully didn’t get). He also executive produced the now-cancelled cable TV show Boss and made the instantly forgettable Bryce Dallas Howard brainchild/Mia Wasikowska vehicle, Restless, which the less said about, the better. He even had to switch cinematographers this time out, making Restless the unfortunately final collaboration with the late, great Harris Savides after a long six film collaboration. Luckily, Linus Sandgren’s naturalistic, grainy cinematography of Promised Land makes up for a lot of scattered potential and lowered expectations. Danny Elfman’s subtle score also helps the ultimately anti-corporate messages a little more subliminal than usual. Not since his Finding Forrester days has he seemed so well-intentioned, yet so benign. Mr. van Sant was clearly in director-for-hire autopilot when he created this film. Films like Promised Land are what makes one yearn for the return of wilder, stylistic films like To Die For, My Own Private Idaho, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Don’t get me wrong, Mr. van Sant handles this shallow material better than most ever would. He never talks down to the audience, nor does he spoon-feed easy answers to further a one-dimensional, anti-corporate agenda that ever-so-corporate Hollywood is always accused of having. He lets the moral dilemmas and topical issues remain complex and unresolved, along with saving the preachy lectures for an after-screening discussion. Erin Brockovich , this is thankfully not. The real corporate salesperson pitching here with the common touch might be Mr. van Sant himself. After all these years, he may be a shadow of his former artistic self, but almost no one soft-sells cinematic plainness with such pastiche and brevity. However, a pat on the back is still a pat on the back, no matter how evenly you divvy up the moral judgments.
Overall, not great, but not too fracking bad.
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