For the first time in a decade, Matt Damon has returned to screenwriting, and did so with the help of – not Ben Affleck – John Krasinski, the star of The Office. They unite with Damon’s Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant to tell the story of a man hired to help sell small towns on having their land fracked by a natural gas company. This is big issue Hollywood filmmaking, and it’s unfortunate that these talented filmmakers can’t overcome formula more than they do.
- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Writers: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Dave Eggers (story only)
- Starring: Matt Damon John Krasinski, Rosemary DeWitt, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook
- Music by: Danny Elfman
- Cinematography by: Linus Sandgren
Steve Butler (Damon) works for a natural gas company because he grew up in a small town that was decimated when the small town’s biggest industry was shut down. He now sells small town people on leasing their land to natural gas, with them getting a percentage of the gas company’s success. When he tackles a new town, shortly after getting a big promotion, he’s stymied when a local man (Holbrook) tells the town about the dangers of what the gas companies do – fracking – which could lead to their town’s land getting destroyed by the process. And that leads to a small environmental group fronted by Dustin Noble (Krasinski) to come and sway the populace to his side. This annoys Butler almost as much as Noble stealing his love interest, teacher Alice (DeWitt).
- Actor’s Director: Gus Van Sant is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and he knows how to get smart performances out of his players. Everyone delivers solid performances, even though at least one of the characters is a bit hammy (Lucas Black plays an ignorant small town boy). But you’ve got an all star team, and all get their moments to shine.
- Modest Tempo Changes: There’s a structure to this film that will be familiar when you watch it, but it felt like Damon’s character actually has a point of view worth expressing very early on. He’s seen what can happen to a small town when the work goes overseas and he honestly thinks he’s doing the right thing. That’s often expressed in interesting ways, and when he’s paired with McDormand, you have a number of great moments and scenes.You see everyone trying to find new ways to do familiar stuff.
- The Twist: There’s a big reveal later on that caught me by surprise, but actually works.
- Really?: The good things about this film are undone by what happens in the third act. Ultimately Damon’s character (who keeps expressing that he’s not the bad guy) learns that his company is kind of evil and so he has a crisis of conscious. And here is where the fact that Damon co-wrote the script works against the film. It’s one thing to write or play a Henry Fonda/Frank Capra-esque character, it’s a little different when you write that for yourself. It felt like the film would have been more interesting if he never eventually questioned his loyalty to his company, because the film wants to have its cake and eat it too. Because the moral quandry the main character is in seems like it have happened much earlier in the character’s career, or by that point in his life he would have known the truths he was exposed to. Unfortunately it’s the hook on which the narrative hangs, and when that doesn’t work, it undoes whatever did work.
- Cliches: Though Hal Holbrook is great to see on screen, he’s playing a one-dimensional character that in decades previous would be played by a native American, or someone like that. The noble wisened truth teller. Rosemary DeWitt is one of the most fascinating working actresses today, but her part is also more plot function than a real character, and we mentioned before, Lucas Black is stuck playing a character that you resent seeing on screen because there’s one dimension to the character and that’s all there is.
There is a level of talent at work here that makes the fact that the movie becomes mushy bullsh– all the more annoying. There are modest pleasures to be had, but on a whole the film feels like bad Oscar bait from decades past.
Promised Land opens in limited release December 28, and will expands nationwide on January 4.