REVIEW: Promised Land


Promised Land
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 ParkPromised 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.

Grade: C+


Matt Damon is one of the hardest working, most consistently superb screen actors working in Hollywood today.  He’s one of the few people working inside the modern-day studio system who has yet to fully succumb to a large pay day.  Even looking at his page on IMDB, you see he has 5 films slated for release in 2011, the first of which was The Adjustment Bureau. His name on the marquee was enough to draw studio money to a film otherwise filled with lesser names.  Since his big break in Good Will Hunting, he has evolved into a full-fledged movie star without losing his passion-project sensibility.  Whether he’s chasing down the truth in The Bourne Trilogy or partnering with Clint Eastwood, you have enough faith of his ethic off-camera to enjoy what’s about to be in front of it.

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Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, and Kristen Hicks

Had the tracking shot never been invented, Gus Van Sant’s searing humanization of the Columbine shootings wouldn’t have made it.  As we literally wonder the halls of a fictional suburban high school,  the camera follows several students in a semi-warped time frame.  We often see the same event from different perspectives, much like the end of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.  The time before and after these intersections shows us the same setting in very different lights.

Van Sant is one of the leading auteurs of the gay film movement, and though not all of his films have those themes, his best films often do.  Elephant contains a controversial shower kiss between the two shooters, Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost), before they embark on their killing spree.  It’s not a romantic moment, or even a passionate one, it’s just there.

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Directed by: Gus van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch

Biopics may be one of the trickiest genres to pull off successfully.  This is because they are probably some of the most over made, over praised films made today.  It’s also because you need to tell an honest story that shows your subject’s dark side, but you also need to have some deep connection with them as well.  Gus van Sant’s Milk is so refreshing not because it redefines the biopic, but because it raises the bar impeccably, almost impossibly, high.

Thanks to a terrific cast led by Sean Penn’s bone-deep performance, a deservedly Oscar-winning screenplay from Dustin Lance Black, and van Sant’s film making moxy and deep connection to the material, Milk flies on the wings of creative passion.

This being said, it is not a perfect film.  If not for Penn’s incredible acting, Harvey Milk would almost be a two dimensional character.  It’s dangerous to have such a kind human being be the subject of a biopic.  Nothing against the kind, but they can be boring.  Luckily, Penn is a live wire, and lets us see the mischievous politician behind Milk’s crowd-pleasing rebellion.  His total immersion in the role earned him his second Best Actor Oscar of the decade, and he totally deserved it.

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