I think it is important that we establish right off the bat that “Promised Land” is a good movie. Things get a little tricky after that because it’s impossible not to notice this film has some problems.
The question then becomes is this a good movie that could have been great if not for a handful of flaws? Or could it be that this is a terrible movie that is elevated thanks to the tremendous talents of those involved?
Perhaps this is all a little too “chicken or egg” to matter much and maybe it would just be easier to say that “Promised Land” is a movie that flirts equally with greatness and dreadfulness.
In the film, Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a rep for a massive natural gas company, who is sent along with his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) to a small town in Pennsylvania to purchase mineral and drilling rights.
Steve is smooth and charming, a natural salesman with his own small-town cred and a reputation as an effective closer.
Things seem to be going swimmingly for Steve and Sue until a town elder, played by the eternally reasonable Hal Holbrook, voices concerns about the potential ecological damage from the gas company’s drilling process, known as “fracking.”
The screenplay for “Promised Land” was written by Damon and “The Office” star John Krasinski, who shows up in the movie as an environmentalist taking on the gas company.
All of this smacks of an idea hatched at a dinner party on a yacht after discussing an article someone read in “Newsweek.” But instead of having their movie carry a banner that screams “ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE!!!” Damon and Krasinski paint in broad strokes that are almost grey.
The detrimental environmental impact of fracking is presented less as a certainty and more accurately as only a possible outcome. It also presents an agricultural community with an economically fragile way of life that could be rescued by the gas company’s cash.
“Promised Land” is really a movie about risk, a point that gets brought home thanks to some on-the-nose monologues by Damon and Holbrook.
Are the town’s people willing to wager the long-term viability of their land for an immediate financial windfall? And is Steve willing to wager his integrity for job security after realizing his company doesn’t always deal with people on the up-and-up?
Damon called in director Gus Van Sant to helm “Promised Land,” considering the guy owes him at least three more favors after Damon agreed to wander aimlessly in the desert for days on end in Van Sant’s movie “Gerry.”
Van Sant is a great director who knows a thing or two about risk himself. After all, this is the guy who remade “Psycho” shot for shot pretty much just to see what would happen. He plays it all pretty straight here, although he does allow himself to linger on images of pastoral, small-town American life while somehow managing to avoid romanticizing it.
You can’t say this isn’t a well-made movie, with Van Sant behind the camera and such a talented cast giving it their all. Even Rosemarie DeWitt makes something interesting out of her completely tacked-on and unnecessary part as a local school teacher/romantic interest.
When viewed through a wide-angle lens “Promised Land” is an impressive film, but it doesn’t take much scrutiny to see some perilous structural flaws.
Character motivations wind up being either murky or underdeveloped, emotional beats feel labored and a major plot twist is both implausible and impractical.
I return to wondering whether these are problems that are holding the movie back or that it has overcome. Either way, they can’t be ignored and therefore “Promised Land” has to be satisfied with merely being a “good” movie.
“Promised Land” is rated R for language.