Movie Review: Promised Land
Rating: R (language)
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: January 4, 2013
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Stars: 3 out of 5
"Promised Land" is a story about what happens when small-town America meets corporate interests in an hour of need. In some ways, the story is thematically similar to other films where big business and rural life mingle, including movies like "Erin Brockovich." In both "Erin Brockovich" and "Promised Land," characters confront issues taken from the news stories of the day. In "Promised Land," the issue is fracking, which is the controversial process used by oil companies to extract natural gas from shale layers.
Matt Damon plays the role of Steve Butler in "Promised Land." Butler is a small-town Iowa farm boy who grew up to be a successful salesman. Apparently, Butler is something of a legend in the large energy company he works for because his rural background helps him convince property owners in small towns to sign over drilling rights. Damon and his partner (played by Frances McDormand) arrive in the town of McKinley expecting no opposition to their offer, since economic times are hard. Instead, they butt heads with a high school teacher and an environmental activist who rallies the town against the idea of fracking.
Director Gus Van Sant has worked with Damon before, including the movie "Good Will Hunting." Originally, Damon was supposed to direct "Promised Land." It would have been his directorial debut, but due to artistic differences and a lack of preparation time, Damon stepped away from the director role.
As with "Good Will Hunting," Damon was a coauthor on the script for "Promised Land." The other writer was John Krasinski, who plays environmental activist Dustin Nobel. Emmy Award winner Hal Holbrook, who is most recently known for roles on the television shows "Sons of Anarchy" and "The Event," plays likeable high school teacher Frank Yates. Other cast members include Titus Welliver, Tom Guinee, and Terry Kinney.
Damon brings a characteristic everyman charm to the movie, making the character of Steve Butler appealing. In fact, many of the characters in this flick are nice, which makes it hard to see the conflict at times. The writing is full of tact, and Van Sant takes a soft approach to what could be considered major political issues. Possibly, the filmmakers were striving for a balance that would alienate the fewest possible viewers. Even so, the plot requires that someone take the villain's fall, so there is a resolution to it all.
Although the lack of hard confrontation may create a slight vacuum in the plot, the simplicity and gentleness used for the issue may increase the entertainment value for some. The script is well written and addresses some difficult issues faced by small towns and rural areas on a regular basis. If the film doesn't wrap up and solve some very complex problems in just over an hour and a half, viewers can't be too upset.
Side plots to the issue of fracking and drilling rights include some minor and somewhat amusing hints at romance. Although "Promised Land" cannot be considered a romance, there are some moments between Damon's character and an elementary school teacher (played by Rosemarie DeWitt). DeWitt, who also starred in "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," delivers on a role that is possibly too petty for her acting ability. In addition to a bit of a romance with Steve Butler, DeWitt's school teacher role is also involved with Butler's opponent, Dustin Nobel. Although the romance adds some entertainment value to the film, it is a bit lackluster, making "Promised Land" a poor choice for chick flick or date night.
Even with the stilted romance and soft-hand method of tackling issues, "Promised Land" does deliver a thought-provoking look at personal ethics and responsibility. Damon's performance as an honest country boy who may have gotten too far involved in questionable business practices is excellent. Van Sant delivers an entertaining and realistic storyline that asks viewers, "How far is too far?"
"Promised Land" (watch trailer here) is an odd film that will fall successfully somewhere between those who like a strong drama and those who like political issues in their Hollywood fare. Some scenes in the movie are simplified and implausible, which may anger hardcore-issue viewers. However, for most people, the likeable characters and the setting that is easy to identify with will make "Promised Land" a movie that is worth the hour and a quarter spent watching it.