Promised Land is the third collaboration between the Good Will Hunting duo – writer/star Matt Damon and director Gus Van Sant – who last united ten years ago on the divisive lyrical experiment Gerry. Damon plays Steve Butler, a rural town native-turned successful natural gas corporate salesman. He’s the antithesis of a Frank Capra protagonist, whose naivety and innocence makes them susceptible to cynicism in the face of corporate interests (see: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). That Steve starts disillusioned is one of the film’s problems, for reasons that will be explained later.
Steve’s on the verge of a promotion when he and partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) head to rural Pennsylvania, anticipating an easy job convincing locals to sell their properties for drilling rights. However, that’s before encountering such unexpected obstacles as a distinguished high school teacher (Hal Holbrook), whose respectability and industry knowledge complicate a city-wide vote on the matter; not to mention, the arrival of mysterious environmental activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, who co-wrote the script with Damon) whose presence jeopardizes their entire operation and messes up Steve’s budding romance with local elementary teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Promised Land aims to be a meditation on economic hardships and disappearing community values – as explored through a Capra-esque socially-conscious parable – but works better as an allegory for the Hollywood types who made it attempting to reconnect with the ‘common people’ (a group they once belonged to). The film never transcends the feeling that it was made by people concerned about an issue, as opposed to those whom are directly impacted. As much as the screenplay from Damon and Kransinski – and story co-conceived by David Eggers (Where the Wild Things Are, Away We Go) – is coming from a sincere place, there’s an obstacle it fails to overcome: it’s from the perspective of privileged outsiders looking in.
Unfortunately, Damon’s performance contributes to that flaw; his self-detestment and incompetence often feels forced, while the scenes where Steve gets back to his roots are (and yes, this sounds mean) like watching a politician rolling up their sleeves, pretending to be a blue-collar worker. The script ends up incorporating some credibility-straining developments (including, a climactic revelation) in order to properly complete Steve’s arc, since he begins from a darker place. It’s those plot elements that are bound to generate complaints that Promised Land amounts to propaganda and fails to shock because of Krasinski’s character – who, it seems, is meant to be perceived as pushy yet sincere, but overdoes it and just comes off mostly twee and obnoxious (that might’ve been partly intentional but, again, it’s too much).
Meanwhile, the characters played by McDormand, Holbrook and DeWitt – who are all more interesting and feel like legitimate salt-of-the-earth folk – end up getting short-shifted, with so much screen time devoted to Steve and Dustin. That’s all the more frustrating because those actors also give the best performances in the film. To tie back to a previously-raised point: Promised Land is (theoretically) shining a light on the tribulations of these ordinary people and giving them a voice but by pushing them aside in favor of Steve’s redemption, it fails to accomplish that task.
Damon and Krasinski are more successful here as screenwriters than actors. Their script isn’t exactly a trailblazer, in part because it borrows the Capra formula (right down to a character’s moment-of-truth monologue in the third act); nonetheless, its simple storytelling and political restraint is admirable. Similarly, Promised Land avoids proposing any pat solution when it comes to the dilemma of fracking and its environmental consequences. The film’s unwillingness to commit politically and demand for accountability are its strengths - which makes those aforementioned thematic (and philosophical) shortcomings all the more frustrating by comparison.
On a pure technical level, Van Sant and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren create some picturesque visuals that include recurring bird’s-eye shots of the untarnished countryside; however, the use of prolonged takes and/or extemporaneous camera movement distracts as often as it manages to enhance any scene. Similarly, the restrained color palette heightens the subdued atmosphere that lingers throughout, but also (inadvertently) emphasizes the portentous mood and absence of dramatic drive. The film feels as though it should flow along like composer Danny Elfman’s gentle musical accompaniment, but the final result is unnecessarily inert.
As a whole, Promised Land unfolds as a hybrid of elements from Damon and Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting and Gerry, in terms of storytelling and style. It has the same script strengths, but more weaknesses than GWH – and doesn’t have equally strong central performances to compensate for writing flaws – while the cinematic aesthetics and touches of symbolism (see: shots of fizzling water, whenever Steve washes his face) aren’t the focus like in Gerry, but end up being heavy-handed as a result. It’s high-minded material, but makes for a flaccid viewing experience.
Here is the trailer for Promised Land:
Promised Land is Rated R for language. It is currently playing in limited release, but will expand to more theaters around the U.S. over the forthcoming weeks.