Calling a film “well-intentioned” — like I’m about to do with Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land — is a backhanded compliment, like Little Leaguers getting a trophy just for trying. Promised Land certainly does try, and it really wants to be a film with a grand, noble message about the dangers and shady business practices around fracking — the environmentally controversial method of releasing natural gas — but the movie is far too folksy, naïve and sentimental to have its point taken seriously.
Matt Damon plays Steve, a corporate lackey for a natural gas company who goes around middle America buying up land to be drilled. With him, he brings large sums of money, with promises to modernize these towns so that they’re no longer stuck in time behind the rest of the America. Much of the drama is centered around this idea of traditional Americana. It’s an Americana that’s looked upon fondly by Van Sant and company, who spend the bulk of the film questioning whether it’s a way of life that should be lost. This is intertwined with Steve’s slow awakening to the dangers and moral quandaries his job creates when he enters one town and faces resistance from a local farmer (Hal Holbrook) and an environmentalist (John Krasinski).
The dramatic arc of Promised Land follows Steve’s awakening, which culminates in one goofy fit of schmaltz involving a young girl selling lemonade. But even before we get here, the film does a poor job of drawing the viewer into the movie. With a cast that includes Damon and Frances McDormand, you know there will be a certain amount of professionalism at play here. But chunks of the film ring false. Perhaps with Van Sant at the helm, a screenplay from Damon and Krasinski and a story by one of America’s most tooth-achingly sincere writers, Dave Eggers, you get a definite sense of millionaires lecturing on the virtues of the simple life.
After describing the basic gist of the film to a friend, my friend asked me if it was anything like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). I told him that, no, they’re not that much alike cinematically, though there are some basic thematic similarities. Considering those similarities — the ideas of greed, corruption and the American Dream — that’s just where Promised Land goes awry (besides not having Matt Damon bludgeon John Krasinski to death with a bowling pin, of course). The film just never has the guts to be truly honest about the concerns it raises. As a result, Van Sant has ended up with a passive, white-washed film that never gets any sort of message across. Rated R for language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14