'Promised Land': Matt Damon Squares Off Against John Krasinski in a Mostly-Smart David and Goliath Story (MOVIE REVIEW)
Matt Damon got his big break teaming with Gus Van Sant in 1997 with Good Will Hunting, a memorable character drama written by and starring Damon and buddy Ben Affleck. The film won them a Best Screenplay Oscar and launched their meteoric ascent to the Hollywood A-list.
This week, Damon re-teams with Van Sant for the third time, (after 2002’s Gerry) co-writing Promised Land with costar John Krasinski. Their latest is a satisfactory and occasionally noteworthy drama set in the American heartland where the soft lolling of the cows cannot hope to overcome the roar of corporate greed and real-world politics.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a country-bred city boy working with Global Crosspower Solutions, a $9-billion natural gas company. On the day of his promotion, he is sent to McKinley, Pennsylvania, a farm town hit hard by the recession, to buy up land for the lowest price so Global can exploit the shale beneath their feet for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Joining Butler is Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), a veteran at Global with a jaundiced eye on the task at hand and another on her boy back home.
Hanging out in a local bar, Butler meets Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a school teacher who lives alone in a farmhouse she wouldn’t mind sharing with the right guy.
In the scene, Van Sant frames his actors in a series of singles before they come together in a two-shot, employing a straightforward visual style while eliciting resonant performances from his cast, especially Damon, who anchors the movie with nuance and proficiency.
In a scene where a town leader tries to extort money from Butler, Van Sant films his actors in a series of two-shots and singles, and a dolly move which, when it’s completed, traverses the 180 line separating the two, in effect, flipping the table just as one character attempt to turn the tables on the other.
As things seem to be going Butler’s way, into town drives Dustin Noble, (Krasinski) an environmentalist looking to educate McKinley on the dangers of fracking - a David out to stop the "Goliath" of Global.
But as the second act progresses, the movie begins to lose momentum. Short on plot, the story revolves mainly around the brewing face off between Noble and Butler as the latter begins to grow a conscience.
His evolution feels obvious and unconvincing - a small-town guy at heart, he struggles to fulfill his obligation to the company and keep his hands clean at the same time, a hopelessly naive prospect.
To their credit, writers Damon and Krasinski make an unexpected move building their story around Butler, a protagonist on the wrong side of the issue. Less imaginative writers would have gone with Noble, a guy fighting the odds to do the right thing. But in the end it’s not so simple as to who is the hero and who is the villain.
As Promised Land reaches a climax, a plot twist arrives unexpectedly which, while believable, feels inorganic to the story. After avoiding the pitfalls of proselytism for 100 minutes, the filmmakers suddenly seem determined to make a point about nefarious energy companies that is accurate but nevertheless feels manipulative.
Promised Land, a thoughtful movie which aims to entertain as well as inspire debate, gets a wide release on January 4th, but will be shown in New York and Los Angeles on December 28th in order to qualify for an Oscar. But even though its heart is in the right place and its message is clear, they don’t give out awards for good intentions.
Watch the theatrical trailer for Promised Land, and then let us know in the comments below: How well does this film live up to Damon's first high-profile collaboration with Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting?