Promised Land is a neat little movie. As long as one recognizes it as a little movie. An odd hybrid of small town saga and Message Movie, Gus Van Sant’s film (written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski) tells the story of a little hamlet descended upon by the Big Energy people with promises of fat paychecks and a new way of life as the specter of corruption looms overhead. Obviously the offscreen incarnation of Matt Damon has a strong opinion on a lot of issues and there’s a bit of that at play but even with the political and economic backdrop there’s a real warmth under the surface here that’s hard to deny.
Natural Gas is the driving force behind the story, with Damon representing the corporation who arrives in town to sell the locals on relinquishing their land in order to capitalize on the potential windfalls to come. He believes in his product and truly believes he’s helping these people but he also has a mean salesman’s heart as evidenced by a diner sequence with a local politician. It’s a good character that allows Damon to parlay his natural charm into some gray areas and it helps keep the film from descending into leaden territory. Additionally, his scenes with co-worker Frances McDormand offer a lot of the film’s comic relief with the actress playing a bit against type as a funny but ruthless executor of the company’s will. Their scenes together are a showcase of two very talented people making very hard stuff come across effortlessly onscreen.
There’s a wrinkle. There’s always a wrinkle. This time it comes figuratively and literally (because he’s old) in the form of Hal Holbrook [somehow still alive and relevant and fantastic] as a local teacher who sees holes in the policies of the natural gas company and the threats it represents for the locals. Already facing an ultimatum from their superiors Damon and McDormand find a true stumbling block in the form of John Krasinski as a activist who flies directly in the face of their plans. It’s here that story either loses or secures its audience. There’s an odd attempt at a romantic triangle between Damon, Krasinski, and the underused Rosemarie DeWitt and it nearly strains believability. There’s also a little corporate intrigue that affects the film’s third act and robs it of some of its punch.
The rub is that it’s still a pretty solid little movie. The margins are filled with very capable supporting players in the form of Holbrook, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, and Titus Welliver. Gus Van Sant stays out of the way though it’s hard not to love his numerous overhead shots that contract the protagonists in their vehicles and the expansive fields surrounding them. Damon does a terrific job of not coming off as too earnest and Krasinski has a very laid back naturalistic style that helps a movie like this.
It’s tiny and nothing all that memorable but the kind of well-intentioned which would have been perfectly suited for the late 80’s or early 90’s. It’s a bit too collegiate in its thought process but not to the point of robbing it of any merit. As it stands this tale of fracking [awful word, sounds like something from Caligula] is harmless but not compelling enough to warrant major attention.
The Best Scene in The Movie.
In an almost parallel moment to his Good Will Hunting “How you like them apples?” scene Damon dresses down a group of locals with uncanny skill. And gets punched in the face for his troubles.
How Thick is The Message?
While the film tries to show both sides it definitely is about how the process of fracking is a potentially dangerous and imperfect means of extracting Mother Nature’s snizz juice. Luckily it’s handled with a gentle touch.
Can I Watch This Movie Pretending it’s the Further Adventures of Hal Holbrook’s Character From Creepshow?
Yes and no. While it could be considered that the recently widowed Professor Henry Northrup changed his name and began teaching in a small farming community, it’s unlikely. Once you’ve encountered and taken advantage of the killing prowess of a crate monster it’s difficult to fathom that the man would simply enjoy his newfound freedom and leave town and forge a new life. Plus, even though Holbrook’s character in Promised Land is quite happily married one could speculate that one night that bitch would look at him the wrong way or burn the corn bread and he’d be hightailing it back to the stomping grounds of the crate monster to recruit that furry nightmare for some wetworks. But yes, it’s possible and if it’ll help a little movie like this earn a few extra Creepshow dollars it’s hard to see fault. So I am changing my answer to yes. Promised Land is a very sly and artful Creepshow 3.
Is John Krasinski the next Ben Affleck?
Well he does also have a huge head. TBD.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Nick On… Is my new ongoing movie review column. The goal is to distill things a little and make it a little more playful and easier to digest rather than the long form. Hope you like. Please let me know what you think as there will be many of these coming and the goal always is to improve. Please share and whatnot.