Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: John Krasinski & Matt Damon (screenplay), Dave Eggers (story)
Starring: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt
Promised Land is a message movie about fracking just like it was marketed, but exactly what that message ends up being is somewhat surprising. It’s more about the fading myth of small town life than it is about grandiose environmentalism, and its biggest asset is surely the atmosphere of the rural Pennsylvania town that representatives (Matt Damon and Frances McDormand) from the big, bad, generically-titled corporation Global descend upon to pluck up land on the cheap for digging.
There isn’t much blood in Gus Van Sant’s latest film, though, but there is quite a bit of swindling. Damon and McDormand are two screen presences often associated with kindheartedness, which they subvert here in the way that they intend to manipulate the poverty of the town by putting on a smile and exaggerating the numbers. One of the best scenes in the movie comes toward the beginning, when they enter a convenience store on the outskirts of their target town to try and attempt to dress the part (they buy flannel shirts).
What Promised Land does exceptionally well is embed us in the ebb and flow of small town life with tactful, precise observations. From a bar competition where outdrinking the bartender earns free drinks for everyone to holding town hall meetings in a gymnasium before the varsity basketball game, Van Sant expertly illustrates not just modern rural America, but also the presence outsiders have on it.
Steven (Damon) spends most of the movie trying to use the town’s charms and habits against it. This becomes more evident when an environmentalist (John Krasinski, who co-wrote the script with Damon) shows up to vie for the town’s affections before the town votes on whether or not to support Global’s fracking invasion. The script mostly avoids grandstanding and preaching, and though it is clearly against the controversial drilling practice, the allure of money in tough economic times is undeniable.
Because the movie’s stance on the issue evolves and expands with Steven, it’s mostly about reconciling what he does for a living with whether or not he can live with himself. The answer to that questions is fairly obvious if you’ve seen a movie before, but for the most part it avoids manipulating emotion and condescending to intelligence like its main characters do.
Van Sant is good at balancing the naturalistic acting from all the performers with his knack for visual detours to give us a break from their talking. He is a director who, like Steven Soderbergh, oscillates between bigger, studio-backed endeavors like Milk and Good Will Hunting to lower budget indies like Elephant and Paranoid Park. Promised Land, with its big marquee names and its overtly didactic premise, is definitely more of the former.
This isn’t to say that should be held against this movie. Van Sant has made great movies of all sizes, which makes his directorial touch somewhat illusive. Here it can be found in the time lapses in a diner and the slow motion pan of a little league pitcher to reveal Global’s logo on the back of his uniform. Promised Land is not a great movie, but it is assured and at times surprising in its tackling of the issue at its center.