Film Review – Promised Land
After the runaway critical and financial success of 1997’s Good Will Hunting, a reunion between actor and director was an exciting and somewhat inevitable prospect. Less expected was director Gus Van Sant’s experimental Gerry, a barebones effort pitting Matt Damon and Hunting co-star Casey Affleck against the unwielding devastation of mother nature. Gerry marks an interesting point in Van Sant’s career, as it was the first film to find him using his clout to fund clearly personal pet projects (Paranoid Park, anyone?). After suffering such duds as his ill-advised, shot-for-shot Psycho remake and the painfully pandering Finding Forrester, it certainly seemed a step in the right (if not always successful) direction. Let’s call Promised Land a happy middle ground then.
Damon stars in Promised Land, alongside Frances McDormand, as Steve Butler, a rising salesman for Global (ahem), a big-wig gas company sent to small rural towns in order to convince the residents to give over drilling rights of their properties. Butler and Sue (McDormand) have clearly been at this awhile, and administer a series of persuasive tactics to reach their end goal. Neither is depicted as ruthless or uncaring, and one couldn’t be faulted for buying into their carefully-worded promises of wealth. Only when objections arise from a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) at a town meeting do eyebrows begin to raise. Add to this the arrival of a gung-ho environmentalist (John Krasinski) with a convincing sob story, and their surefire endgame becomes decidedly less surefire.
Hampering matters further is the flirtatious relationship sparked between Steve and a young local teacher (a fetching Rosemarie DeWitt). She has been handed down a beautiful stretch of land from her grandfather, allowing the viewer a firsthand peek into the possible consequences of Steve’s and Sue’s “noble” intentions. The escalating rivalry between Krasinski and Damon becomes the centerpiece of the film, and Van Sant, wisely, is careful not to spoonfeed you in the choosing of a hero. We’re shown the power of manipulation orchestrated on both ends. Krasinski’s “aw shucks” approach to the fight often brinks on grating, while Damon’s occasional back-handedness in pursuit of this career is eye-opening in its own right.
Hinging the film on a town vote seems a little pat, and a late-in-the-game twist feels more than a bit forced. The grounded performances keep Promised Land from drowning in schmaltz, though, and the steady pacing leaves you invested throughout. Based on this description, you might feel like you know right where the film is headed—and, for the most part, you’re probably right. That said, Van Sant is careful to keep these characters from being cardboard cutouts, and one particular character decision towards the end reads as both bold and true to life.
Promised Land is a little too slight to garner the awards attention it seems to strive for, but that doesn’t take away from the power it yields. It’s a timely yarn given our current economic climate and a true showcase for Damon and Krasinski both in front of and behind the camera (the two have writing credits, based on a story by Dave Eggers). Gus Van Sant has reached a very interesting point in his directorial career, and I for one can’t wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.
Final Grade: B