Grade: 53 (C+)
Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land marks the director’s third collaboration with Matt Damon, but the film is more Good Will Hunting than Gerry. Both Promised Land and Good Will Hunting were co-written by Damon and another co-star (Ben Affleck for the earlier film, John Krasinski here), both feel more personal to Damon (who had originally planned to direct here) than to Van Sant, both are more mainstream than Van Sant’s more exciting, experimental films, and both are, in essence, redemption stories. It fits, then, that both films have the same creative teams, as the earlier troubled-genius therapy film and the anti-fracking drama have the same strengths and weaknesses.
Steve Butler (Damon) is a rising salesman for Global, an energy company specializing in the harvesting of natural gas. Steve and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) travel to a struggling rural town to buy drilling rights. Butler genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing for these people: he’s originally from a small town, and his memories of the town going under after their industry collapsed are so painful that he believes any chance for the townspeople to make money is a plus. But local schoolteacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) speaks out against the fracking process, saying that the chance for pollution is too high. Their situation is complicated when Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a grassroots environmentalist, arrives in town and competes with Steve for votes and for the heart of pretty schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Promised Land starts off so strong that it’s a pity when it torpedoes itself in its final act. Van Sant isn’t piling on many idiosyncratic touches, but his direction here is less anonymous than in Good Will Hunting (it’s a halfway point between GWH and Milk), and he does well capturing the low-key moments in the characters’ lives. Damon’s characters are by-and-large sympathetically written, and in the first act the film feels far more balanced than an issues-driven movie normally would, particularly in an early scene between Damon and a town official where Damon comes off as a reasonable, concerned man trying to help the town out. Whenever Van Sant and Damon are content to ignore the main plot and hang with the mostly excellent cast, the film is enjoyable: the romance between Damon and Dewitt is disarmingly sweet, as is McDormand’s not-quite romance with a townie, and Damon and McDormand’s banter is frequently hilarious.
And then the big idiot plot starts gearing up. As with Good Will Hunting, the film’s second act plays like an unsuccessful balancing act of enjoyable low-key moments (Damon trying and failing to flag down Krasinski’s truck- twice) and overdramatic plot points (Damon making a big speech about how much the townspeople need this money). Nor is the film successful in making the clashing duo of Damon and Krasinski balanced- Damon plays his nervous but earnest fracking salesman well, but Krasinski almost inadvertently tips our sympathies closer to Damon by playing Dustin as every insufferable, smug, smirking activist you’ve ever wanted to punch in the face. By this point, everyone should expect a disastrous climactic moment a la Good Will Hunting’s near movie-killing “It’s not your fault” scene, but Promised Land’s Big Dramatic Moment TM turns out to be not just melodramatic, but utterly ludicrous, depending on a twist that’s both illogical and dramatically unsatisfying. The final act negates much of the goodwill the film builds up by making an entire plot point, and that sense of fairness, completely moot. Until that point, Promised Land is overly dramatic in its big moments, but at least it’s reasonably balanced. But it’s hard to stay balanced, or even acceptably unbalanced, when the turning point of the film rings so completely false.