With Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt. Written by John Krasinski & Matt Damon. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Rated R for language. 106 minutes.
PROMISED LAND may be the most disappointing film of the season. It’s not that it’s badly made, but that it is a well-told and complex story dealing with topical issues and moral dilemmas that totally falls apart in its third act. The filmmakers went for a cheap gimmick rather than let the story play out to a realistic conclusion. It’s an opportunity lost.
Matt Damon and John Krasinski co-wrote the script in which they play characters on opposite sides of a current energy and environmental issue. At the start of the story, Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small Pennsylvania town on behalf of their oil company employer. Surveys have found natural gas deposits underneath much of the local land and they are there to secure leases to extract the resource through a controversial drilling-and-douching process known as “fracking.” It’s controversial not because it doesn’t work, but because of its side effects.
These effects are made crystal-clear by Dustin Noble (Krasinski) an environmentalist who provides the information that Steve and Sue neglect to mention, like that their drinking water may become so contaminated it becomes flammable. This is an interesting story. The debate over fracking as an extraction process is going on right now (see Josh Fox’s excellent Oscar-nominated docu “GasLand”), and making the protagonist of the story – Steve – a proponent of it is fascinating. Steve has to wrestle with the notion that he may be lying to the locals about the benefits they may reap from the leases they agree to and the money they might earn.
The locals aren’t quite as well-developed. Frank Yates (the venerable Hal Holbrook) is a local science teacher who is outspoken and skeptical of Steve’s claims, and has the expertise to challenge him. More ambiguous is Alice (Rosemary DeWitt), who seems to be open to romantic overtures from both Steve and Dustin. One wishes her character (also a local school teacher) was more developed, but it does serve to sharpen the conflict between the energy company rep and the environmentalist.
Unfortunately, Damon and Krasinski have an agenda and while this bleeding-heart liberal film critic is sympathetic to that agenda, it doesn’t make for good drama. Indeed, the “twist” for the film’s third act is so pathetic that it actually undercuts the message of the film. Instead of being a movie about how good, well-meaning people might be persuaded that an unsound process that damages the environment might be the way to go, it paints everything in black and white. The result isn’t dramatically satisfying because it is so pat.
Damon is a wonderful and engaging performer who is perfect in the morally ambiguous role of the energy company rep. McDormand, bouncing back from sleepwalking through “Moonrise Kingdom,” provides an interesting counterpoint. For her this is a job where she’s not agonizing over the effects of her actions. She’s in it for the paycheck. Krasinski proves to be an interesting adversary for a good portion of the film and the result is that Steve’s dilemma is real and meaningful.
Then we get to the big reveal and “Promised Land” turns into a political tract that will likely disappoint even those who agree with the film’s message. It gives us easy heroes and villains instead of making us work through the issue. “Promised Land” falls far short of its goal, leaving its viewers in the wilderness.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.