The last time Matt Damon and director Gus Van Sant teamed up for a movie, the result was... Gerry. But before that limited release, it was Good Will Hunting, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, won two additional Oscars and put Matt Damon on the map. The two have now reunited for Promised Land, an entertaining and easy-to-watch drama that unfortunately lacks the necessary power to compete with the end-of-year heavy hitters.
In Promised Land, Damon and Frances McDormand star as Steve Butler and Sue Thomason, two mining company representatives whose job is to secure leases from small town farmers to drill on their land, even if it means stretching the truth about the consequences - and the monetary gains they promise. Steve and Sue show up in their latest town, a rural community with visions of riches, but they face three unexpected obstacles: a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) who knows the truth about fracking, a dedicated environmentalist (John Krasinski) and a beautiful local (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Promised Land is an entertaining movie that simply gets lost with its intent. The movie at once wants to be a character study as Damon, who co-wrote the movie with Krasinski ("The Office"), slowly comes to the realization that his promises of money and comfort actually destroys the earth and the lives of the people he meets. But it also - and in reality, this is its real purpose - wants to bash the practice of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.
The problem is the movie never truly succeeds in achieving either goal. Promised Land is well written and paints a cast of interesting characters, but it lacks bite, power and energy. If there's a scathing rebuke of fracking somewhere in the movie, it never fully clicks. And with that end goal in mind, the character dynamics are too predictable, all too familiar.
Steve is a likable character, almost too likable for his own good. Within the first few minutes of the movie you know what is going to happen (OBVIOUS SPOILERS): he's going to realize the wrongs of his ways and eventually end up with the sweet local teacher he meets. Sue is more interesting, but she isn't a fully realized character. Krasinski and Holbrook turn in fine performances, but Holbrook too is underutilized. DeWitt is left with very little to do as well, and in fact her character is painfully simple. She never has an opinion and seems ambivalent to Steve's job despite his potential impact on her town; her lack of depth is a lost opportunity for real conflict and a deeper emotional connection with the movie.
Despite its flaws, Promised Land is a worthwhile film, even if it falls far short of its own expectations. But for an end-of-year release with serious subject matter, the movie needed to be more and do more.
On a personal note, I believe fracking is a massively dubious mining technique. Whether you agree with the conclusions determined by some scientists, or by the horrifying documentary Gasland, it doesn't take a genius to know that pumping chemicals into the ground could have detrimental effects on the land, water and animals.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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