Although Matt Damon originally intended for Promised Land to be his directorial debut, scheduling conflicts saw it instead become his third screenplay to be directed by Gus Van Sant (after Good Will Hunting and Gerry). With Promised Land, Van Sant opts away from the surrealist touches of early from the neo-realism of many of his 21st century films, instead directing in a more straightforward style akin to Good Will Hunting or Milk. There are a fair number of long takes and plenty of beautiful birds-eye views, but Van Sant opts for an impressive traditionalism, rooted in Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, which brings the film to the perfect tone and helps an occasionally meandering story hold its grip.
Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, who, with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), travels to a rural town to buy-out the land of lower-middle class farmers and extract the natural gas underneath. The salespeople are friendly and likable, but a respected high-school teacher (and former Boeing employee, with a Ph.D) suggests that the money the families will get for their land might not be worth the risks of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking,” as it is known colloquially), calling into question the credibility of our charismatic stars.
This first act is the best part of the film, establishing Damon as a highly likable and well-intentioned salesperson, charming and funny enough to attract and keep the attention of his new flame, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), even after embarrassing himself on their first meeting. We bear witness to deception, but Damon’s claims that the alternatives are coal and foreign oil hit home, and his own background on a farm convinces us that he wants to do the right thing. And that’s precisely why Promised Land works, is because Damon is so convincing; you increasingly realize that your protagonists might be the villains but still want them to come out on top.
An environmentalist (John Krasinski, who also co-wrote) comes to town and constant attempts between him and Steve to one-up the other for the vote of the people as well as for Alice are both humorous and revealing. The conflict allows an examination of Steve’s morals, whether he has been blinded by the success the corporate world has given him (he lives in New York now) or he truly believes that the townspeople should take the money. But what comes out of that examination is not just a look at Steve, but look at the state of farming towns in America in general. As the corporate world continues to expand, should small-towns sell-out while the reward is high or take a moral environmentalist stand? Should they get the money to send their kids to college, or should they preserve the memory of their ancestors who lived on the same land generations before?
It’s because Promised Land does not provide definitive answers to these questions during a rather uneventful and repetitive second act that it maintains interest. It’s less about the particulars of the characters than about the ideology that motivates the film, and it’s the small, intimate moments that suggest this best. Sue’s job keeps her on the road, relegating her to a position where she can only watch her child grow-up through Skype, and there virtual encounter is eventually recalled when Sue watches a baseball game not unlike the one her son is playing hundreds of or even a thousand or more miles away. While all the farmers get to watch their children grow up, Sue’s corporate job demands travel, so she secures an education that the farmers’ children can’t but misses her son’s adolescence. Who wins? There’s also a quietly moving moment between Steve and a girl selling lemonade, one that suggests optimism and financial honesty, and the film never makes too big a point out of it. When the film operates small, it also operates with a subtlety that it loses in its grander moments.
Unfortunately, for every poignant look into an individual’s struggle, there’s a conversation that spells out the debate for the audience. As the film goes on, it begins to trust the audience less and less to keep up with its subtlety. This culminates with a cynical revelation that accidentally undermines the film’s credibility. Even as it shows us that there is honesty in the world, the “don’t trust anyone” subtext is so hard to shake that the movie’s own point of view, on both fracking and morality is drawn under question. Perhaps that’s the point: When a film tries so hard to argue for one side and then the other, maybe it is best that we question whether there is a “right” answer. After all, when the choice is the planet or your child’s education, which do you pick? Still, despite the thematic propulsion, poor-storytelling is poor-storytelling, and the point could be made without the blunt preaching and clichéd ending to the romance. Ultimately, distrust for the audience turns smart characters into obvious symbols, but there’s still much to extract from this well-intentioned portrait.