Review: Promised Land
PLOT: Steve Butler (Matt Damon) works for a natural gas company. Along with his colleague Sue (Frances McDormand), Steve travels from small-town to small-town, encouraging farmers to sell their land rights so his company can pump for gas. Steve has no qualms about the morality of his job, but when he’s challenged by an elderly schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) as to the safety of this process, called “fracking”- and the arrival of a charismatic environmentalist (John Krasinski) – his world begins to change.
REVIEW: PROMISED LAND is a pretty good example of “advocacy cinema”, where the objective of the filmmakers is obviously not just to entertain, but also to inform. Going into PROMISED LAND, I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about fracking- but a quick Wikipedia search proves just how controversial an issue it really is. So- at the very least audiences are going to walk out of PROMISED LAND with a better perspective on the issue.
But, is it a lesson, or is it a movie? In this regard co-star Damon and Krasinski, who wrote the film together, were wise to bring a director like Gus Van Sant on-board. No stranger to advocacy cinema, with movies like MILK, Van Sant has proven himself to be a master at balancing entertainment and information. Whatever else PROMISED LAND is, it’s a very entertaining, almost Capra-esque film which resonates on a deeper level than whether fracking is a bad thing or not.
The heart of PROMISED LAND is Damon’s internal struggle. He’s shown to be a nice, easygoing guy. His affability, backed up by the fact that he saw his own hometown ravaged by a lack of sustainable industry, has made him the perfect guy to get townsfolk to agree to fracking. In his heart, he truly believes it’s their best option, as it’ll pump much needed money into these small towns. Even when things take a turn in the last part of the film, he never really backs down from this stance- which makes this more than it might have been otherwise. Damon himself seems like an utterly decent guy, making it believable that these people would trust him with their livelihoods. Note the scene where he walks into a town-bar, discreetly, but charmingly hits on the attractive local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) and then gets everyone absolutely hammered in a game with the bartender. Through it all, he seems like the kind of guy you’d want to grab a beer with.
However, the cracks in his character’s façade start to show once his rival, an environmentalist named Dustin (John Krasinski) rolls into town and quickly proves himself to be even more charming and cool- winning over the same barfolk with a Bruce Springsteen “Dancing in the Dark” sing-along. Any guy who knows when to break out The Boss shouldn’t be messed with.
Through it all, Van Sant keeps the film chugging along at a quick, entertaining pace. This is GOOD WILL HUNTING/MILK Van Sant, not ELEPHANT/GERRY Van Sant- although frankly I like both varieties. It’s a tribute to Damon that you almost root for him to pull off the fracking contract, even after Krasinski brilliant demonstrates the danger of the process in an animated demonstration to school kids (which- I must admit, seemed clearer to me than any Google or Wikipedia article).
Meanwhile, Van Sant allows plenty of time for the supporting cast to shine, including McDormand’s character- who doesn’t care about the moral implications of her job, but rather that it keeps her teenage son fed and educated. She has a point- and Van Sant never demonizes this point-of-view. Eighty-seven year-old Hal Holbrook shows up as the smartest guy in town- who starts the ball rolling against fracking, and attempts to teach Damon’s character some like lessons later on. He serves as the film’s moral center, and it’s yet another great part in Holbrook’s recent late-career re-emergence.
In the end, PROMISED LAND achieves its aim of entertaining and informing- without ever getting preachy or dogmatic. It’s the kind of movie that you won’t only just enjoy- but you’ll learn something along the way. While it might be a tough sell amid the holiday blockbusters, I hope it finds an audience. Its Van Sant’s best film since MILK (and his pilot to BOSS), and another great part for Damon- a guy whose name has become synonymous with quality.