Promised Land Review


When it comes to an issue like fracking, it’s hard to find middle ground. Those in favor of it cite the need to source energy more locally, while the anti-fracking crowd has Gasland and flaming water (among other things) to prove its points. Gus Van Sant‘s latest film, Promised Land, is ostensibly about fracking, though its director manages to find that political middle ground by eschewing an issue-based approach and focusing more on characters. It’s a quiet film overall that could probably use a stronger pulse, but the small-town charm you’ll find throughout Promised Land—the same charm that drives the film’s thesis forward—is satisfying in a sort of this-is-a-little-silly-but-I’m-going-with-it way.

Steve Butler (Matt Damon, also a co-writer on the project) is a mid-level executive for Global, a natural gas extraction company with its sights set on McKinley, Pennsylvania, as the site of its next big score. Accompanying Steve is his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), but Steve is the climber of this duo, having just secured a big promotion within Global. Sue, less concerned with her status, gets by on the mantra, “It’s just a job.”

After securing the rights to drill on a number of plots, Steve holds a town hall meeting that shouldn’t be anything more than a formality. But between the persistence of the town’s science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), and a pretty damning slip of the tongue by Steve (fracking isn’t perfect, he tells the crowd), it’s decided that a vote will be held to decide the fate of McKinley’s gas (assuming it’s even there).

From there, the film morphs into a battle of wills between Steve and Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, also a co-writer), an environmental activist who has a very bad history with Global. Steve is unaccustomed to not getting his way, and with the promotion being so new, he can’t risk screwing up such a big deal. And as the stress begins to wear him down, Dustin doesn’t need to do much to win the townsfolk over.

Of course, there are some in McKinley who’re hypnotized by the money Steve and Global are promising. One man in particular doesn’t even care to read the contract he’s signing, and before the ink is even dry, he’s purchased a new sports car. Steve doesn’t take this foolishness well. It’s one of many moments throughout the film when you see a small piece of his faith in Global vanish.

Damon’s performance isn’t outstanding, but it’s exactly what it needs to be. Ditto Krasinski. They both deserve more credit for their writing. Dave Eggers is the third man in a pretty damn good trio, and together, they’ve crafted something that never feels preachy and always moves its characters along in a believable fashion. We know just enough about Steve, Sue, Dustin, and the rest of them that when, say, a philosophy shifts or a potentially slimy tactic is undertaken, it makes sense.

If there’s a weak link in both the cast and the screenplay, it’s Rosemarie DeWitt and her character, Alice. She’s a local elementary school teacher, who flirts with Steve at a bar one night. She also has eyes for Dustin, and the ensuing “love triangle,” is both predictable and undercooked. It’s an unnecessary element that’s never given a chance to break free and surprise us. She’s far from bad, but her presence is a fairly faint blip on the radar that is Promised Land.

A better love story occurs between Sue and a shopkeeper, Rob, played by Titus Welliver. They have some genuinely endearing and funny moments, and their performances are easily the two strongest of the film. Hal Holbrook, then, wins the bronze metal for acting. With a few more scenes, he could have competed with McDormand and Welliver for gold. Alas…

Promised Land doesn’t have much of a directorial identity. It’s an interesting case, actually, because Damon was set to make this his directorial debut until he backed out in the eleventh hour. Whether that was a good choice or not is debatable. I happen to think this is a writer’s film, and if Van Sant couldn’t bring much flair to the table, I doubt Damon could have. Despite all that, however, Promised Land nearly enthralled me. Its low points are more than made up for with its smart, level-headed approach to hot-button filmmaking.

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