Synopsis: Promised Land is the new contemporary drama directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman who is sent along with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to close a key rural town in his company’s expansion plans. With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company’s offer, for drilling rights to their properties, as much-needed relief. What seems like an easy job for the duo becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) with support from a grassroots campaign led by another man (John Krasinski), as well as the interest of a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt). Promised Land explores America at the crossroads where big business and the strength of small-town community converge.
Release Date: December 28, 2012 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Matt Damon hasn’t exactly been resting on his laurels since he struck gold with his screenplay for 1997’s Good Will Hunting – he’s one of the most accomplished and respected actors of his generation. After a lengthy absence from screenwriting (he hasn’t had a script produced since 2002’s Gerry), Promised Land sees him back at the keyboard with new writing partner John Krasinski (better known as Jim from “The Office”).
Steve Butler (Damon) is a salesman for an energy company called Global Crosspower Solutions who, along with his partner, Sue Thomason (Francis McDormand), travels to a small town called McKinley to sell the citizens on the idea of putting natural gas wells on their properties. Everything is going as planned until, at a town meeting, a science teacher from the local high school named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) questions the ecological ramifications of the drilling process, a technique known as “fracking” which has been known to release dangerous chemicals into the water supplies of surrounding areas. The issue is further complicated by the arrival of an activist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) who pushes Steve to his limits, both personally and professionally. Steve and Dustin both lobby the town, splitting the opinion of the population as they move towards a vote that will decide the fate of the community.
Promised Land reunites Matt Damon with director Gus Van Sant, who not only directed Damon in Good Will Hunting and Gerry, but also brought audiences Drugstore Cowboy and Milk. The film is exceptionally well rounded; the script is solid and the acting is great, and Van Sant wraps it all up into a tight, coherent little ball. The theme of the story is hope – hope is what Steve and Sue are selling to the citizens of McKinley, hope is what Frank and Dustin hold on to as they try to stop them, and hope is what the entire town has lost. Above all, Promised Land is a story about telling people what they want to hear, and convincing them that it is the truth. That being said, it is not a rosy film. It’s powerful, emotional, intelligent and persuasive – the big question is this: what point is it trying to make?
If there’s a weakness in the film, it’s the moral ambiguity of the situation; it’s never clear who is right or who is wrong, only what the different sides of the argument believe. The facts of the environmental impact of fracking are even cloudy in the film. The townspeople are divided on the subject – half of them are seeing the dollar signs that Steve and Sue are promising, the other half are only paying attention to the pictures of deserted farms and dead cows that Dustin is showing – but the divide is not crystal clear. One minute, Steve is getting punched in the face by a group of men in a bar and the next, most of the town is lending him a hand, helping set up a Global Crosspower carnival. The undereducated residents are confused about the issues and only know what they are being told and sold. The confusion doesn’t stop with the characters, either; the audience is torn by two charismatic presences that are at odds, and it’s difficult to know which one is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. And, judging by the jawdropping ending, that’s how Damon and Krasinski planned it.
Damon and Krasinski have attracted their share of controversy with Promised Land, most of which they have just laughed off. Both opponents and proponents of fracking have had issues with the film. Those against find Steve’s sales pitch to the residents to be too shiny and convincing, while those in favor of it believe that Dustin’s demonstration of the effects of fracking that he performs using a toy farm and a bag of flammable chemicals in a classroom full of students to be overly dramatic. And then there are those who have noticed that Promised Land, a movie that provides a subliminally critical view of natural gas drilling, was partially funded by Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, a production company with supposed ties to big oil. Any way it’s looked at, if controversy translates into box-office success, Promised Land will do very well.
As accomplished of a writer as Damon is, his real strength will always be in acting. He possesses all of the subtle nuance that brings a character like Steve Butler to life; a man who makes his living off of the misfortune of others, yet is able to convince them that he can offer them more than they have. Francis McDormand is equally likeable, but brings a little more humor to the situation – she’s a perfect yin to Damon’s yang, and the pair exhibit great chemistry onscreen together. Hal Holbrook is entirely convincing as the science teacher/ecologist conscience of the town, and Rosemarie DeWitt (A Little Bit Of Heaven) takes a charming role as the love interest who finds herself stuck between Steve and Dustin.
And then there’s John Krasinski. To be fair, he is good. He’s very believable as an environmental activist trying to stop Steve and Sue. It’s just that it’s hard for him to break out of the Jim From “The Office” mold, so the character comes off as simply Jim being socially and ecologically responsible. The Jim approach works in Promised Land, just like it worked in Leatherheads, Something Borrowed, and every other film he’s been in. He’s a star, not a character actor, and as long as he keeps getting roles like Dustin Noble, he’ll continue to do well in them.
When Gus Van Sant lets himself be Gus Van Sant, he has a remarkable directorial style. Fortunately, that’s the Van Sant that is on display in Promised Land: no imitation or influence, just Gus Van Sant making a movie. Van Sant’s flat, somber tone is well suited to show the quiet desolation and desperation of the people in McKinley, a fictional place that stands for anywhere in small town, America. Van Sant uses everything at his disposal to create his vision, from the yellow grass of the farms to the torn clothing on the residents, from time lapse shots of the bustling monotony to the neon soaked escapism of the local tavern. While the talented and experienced cast certainly makes Van Sant’s job easier, his direction is what crafts Promised Land; the vision that Van Sant puts forward is one of hope among the hopeless. The hopeless lives are what Van Sant and cinematographer Linus Sangren (Shelter) capture in drab, earthy reality. Van Sant’s low key directing style fits the subject matter perfectly. Gus Van Sant’s consistency over his career has fluctuated wildly, but with Promised Land, he’s definitely on an upswing.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Gus Van Sant
- Screenwriter(s): John KrasinskiMatt Damon
- Cast: Matt Damon (Steve Butler)Hal Holbrook (Frank Yates)Frances McDormand (Sue Thompson) Rosemarie DeWitt (Alice)John Krasinski (Dustin Noble)
- Editor(s): Billy Rich
- Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Danny Elfman
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA