Promised Land wants to be a message movie, but it's too messy to deliver that message coherently.
Originally slated to be Matt Damon's directorial debut, it was instead directed by his pal Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), who, with this and last year's mawkish Restless, finds himself in a bit of a slump. Although Damon relinquished the director's chair, he still shared screenwriting duties with John Krasinski, and both have big roles in the film.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a likable corporate pawn for a natural gas company sent to a farming town with a mandate to sell the community on allowing its presence. That presence would mean a lot of "fracking," a natural gas extraction process that involves deep drilling and some possible environmental side effects.
Steve is presented as a virtuous fellow who looks to do well and get ahead. He's just about to get a big promotion, and with a wisecracking co-worker at his side (Frances McDormand), he's set to sell fracking to a town mixed with differing opinions on what to do with the land. Some, like Paul (Lucas Black), are looking for a big payday, while others, like Frank (a well-placed Hal Holbrook), look to get in Steve's way.
Also looking to get in Steve's way would be Dustin (Krasinski), a rebel environmentalist who claims fracking wrecks farms and kills livestock. He posts pictures of dead cows around town and playfully intimidates Steve at local bars. He even makes a move on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the small-town girl Steve has his eyes on.
Is Promised Land trying to preach that fracking and natural gas as a resource are bad choices? I really couldn't tell you in the end. The film is far more preoccupied in giving us a nice, happy, pleasant outcome for Steve. Van Sant wants you to leave this movie thinking Damon's Steve is just swell, even if he did put people's livelihoods and land in jeopardy.
There's also a big twist that is nothing but a screenwriting stunt to throw the likes of you off course. It completely undermines any "message" the film is trying to deliver, and comes off as something that would never, ever happen in a movie that is supposed to be realistic.
It's too bad. I liked the idea of Van Sant tackling a simple farm-town story. It really is his most conventional film yet, and the subject matter had me curious. But the Damon/Krasinski screenplay betrays him in the end. Damn your pen, Matt Damon!
Damon's acting is OK. He's playing somebody similar in mannerisms to the character he played in We Bought a Zoo (he wrote Promised Land with Krasinski while taking breaks from making Zoo). His acting is better than his writing. The same can't be said for Krasinski, who both writes and acts badly for this one. Love the dude on The Office, but I'm lukewarm on him at the movies thus far.
As for McDormand, she rises above the material and makes her moments in the film worth watching. The same can be said for Rosemarie DeWitt, who made a habit this year of showing her face in movies unworthy of her. She also starred in the mediocre Nobody Walks, the lousy The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Watch (I am one of the few critics who actually liked that one).
Promised Land left me feeling weird, and I don't think that was its intention. Sure, it made me curious about fracking, but it seemed a little too chicken to stick to its guns and deliver a meaningful statement on anything. Instead, it just wants to get all touchy-feely in the end. Van Sant has made an awkward movie that I think will be fracking forgotten by this time next year.