'Promised Land' promises predictability
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"You. You'd be a millionaire." That's the hammer with which energy company rep Steve Butler (Matt Damon) tries to close a sale with a down-and-out farmer early in "Promised Land." His company is trying to scoop up the pristine-looking farmland of a small rural town fallen on hard times and drill into it to suck out the natural gas reserves. Looks like a life-saver and more for a lot of the put-upon, hard-bitten types who inhabit the burg. Steve's mission goes swimmingly at first. "I didn't think it would be this easy," his older, more seasoned/jaded colleague Sue (Frances McDormand) notes after their first day canvassing their target.
But of course it's not that easy. At a town hall meeting, a wiser-than-us-all figure, played by Hal Holbrook, starts the pushback with vivid descriptions of how the natural gas extraction method, which has the unfortunate but perhaps not inapt name "fracking," has the potential to unleash all manner of ecological catastrophe. And soon, almost as if on cue, an eco-do-gooder with the highly probable name Dustin Noble (note also that Steve Butler is a servant of corporate interests, get it?) shows up to not only undermine Steve and Sue's work, but also to maybe make time with the comely school teacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), with whom Steve had been doing so well up until now.
The script, written by Damon and John Krasinski, who plays Noble (the story itself comes from novelist and literary philanthropist Dave Eggers) does a reasonable job of laying out the strangely complementary needs of the energy industry and the small towns suffering economic drought, and contrasting these with the dire potential consequences of the necessarily dirty way that the "clean" energy of natural gas gets sucked out of the land of those small towns. The situation, which is also delved into at some length in Jonathan Franzen's recent novel "Freedom," is not one that a conscious person can feel a lot in the way of long-term optimism about.
One of several ways this well-meaning picture falls short is in trying to sell a personal-salvation story as a salve to the conundrum it presents. As it unfolds on screen, it doesn't wash. When Damon's character jokes with DeWitt's Alice because despite the fact that she's got 80 acres of land, all she's growing is in a small garden in her yard, she tells him that the garden is for the benefit of her students. How so, Butler asks. "I'm teaching them how to take care of something," Alice replies, and as good and unaffected as Damon and DeWitt are in their roles, both of them might as well be wearing neon signs reading "FORESHADOWING" above their brows. And while the movie is potentially bracing in its assertion, in the tradition of such classic paranoid thrillers as "The Parallax View," that the lengths that a corporation will go to get its way can be sufficiently extreme to be almost beyond our ken, the demonstration of this assertion is more than a little on the pat side.
Still, the movie tells its earnest and somewhat predictable story briskly. Director Gus Van Sant always imbues his movies with an almost breathtaking pictorial sense that sometimes makes plot machinations and their discontents not matter, and he's great with actors, and all the actors here are terrific. There are more than a few decent observational notes: One business conference call on Skype, in which the shame-faced Steve and Sue face a dressing-down from their bosses and step out of the range of the webcam, to their bosses' irritation and confusion, is an emblematic bit of what this movie does really well. The extent to which that makes up for its failings, one of which of course includes the nagging feeling one gets when one feels one is being "schooled" in the context of a movie-star driven entertainment, will likely vary from viewer to viewer. In my case, the extent was "not enough."
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.