Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: John Krasinski & Matt Damon (screenplay), Dave Eggers (story)
Starring: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Scoot McNairy
Hollywood loves hot button issues. Audiences, however, not so much. When it comes to current events, it’s hard to successfully capture ongoing debates without a ham-handed, “eat your vegetables” message being served. I give massive amounts of credit to filmmaker extraordinaire Gus Van Sant for effectively and effortlessly translating Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s script, in which fracking is just the backdrop for a sweet Capra-esque drama. While not always successful in its aim, the film provides both sides of the raging issue in a clear, concise and clever manner. Translation: It’s not fracking awesome, but it’ll do.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a handsome, slick corporate salesman for Global Crosspower Solutions sent to convince the skeptical, scenic farming community of McKinley to sign over drilling (or fracking as it’s commonly known) rights to their land. What seems like a smash-and-grab job turns into a more complicated adventure for Steve and his full-time partner-in-crime/ part-time mother of a tween Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). So what’s the problem, you say? While the economically depressed citizens could use the financial boost, the environmental toll may be far too great, with the threat of natural gas seeping into the water supply and destroying crops and cattle. If a doubting town is not enough, whilst in town Steve encounters two people who turn his world upside down: the witty, girl-next-door Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and retired scientist-turned-respected schoolteacher Frank Yates (played by everybody’s favorite grandpa, Hal Holbrook). Both provide our hero with enough uncertainty to challenge him on his values and morals. Also providing pushback is smarmy environmental advocate Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who stands to destroy everything Steve’s worked hard for personally and professionally.
Van Sant’s light, deft touch is exactly what the story needs. He infuses the picture with a staggering amount of beauty and authenticity. Three weeks is plenty of time for Steve to win over the town, get the girl, and earn a promotion, but Van Sant doesn’t take the stereotypical route. He takes risks. The audience really feels the push-pull of the characters’ life-changing decisions. Damon is great as the Jimmy Stewart-inspired everyday man coming to terms with what’s in everyone’s best interest. Krasinski is wickedly delicious as Steve’s foil, constantly one-upping our hero around every turn. McDormand turns in a fantastic performance as a woman going through her own heroine’s journey, struggling to find the balance between her personal and professional lifestyles. Linus Sandgren’s sparkling cinematography complements the Norman Rockwell-ian mid-western location, highlighting the rich tapestry that is the townsfolk and their lush landscape. It’s an L.L. Bean catalogue come to life – replete with white picket fences, wrap-around porches, and baby goats! Never pushy or disingenuine in its agenda, the script plays with audience loyalty right up to the end. Are we rooting for Steve to win over the town and Alice? Or are we rooting for this tiny town to stand up to a massive corporation? Even though this tends to be bothersome in other films (SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, for example), Van Sant’s film manages to avoid most of the maddening trappings – but, unfortunately, not all.
There are a few problems with film’s denouement that (quite frankly) could have been easily solved simply by looking at a map. Holbrook’s character is dealt short shrift as he’s relegated to a one-dimensional archetype. Every line that comes out of his questioning character’s mouth is preachy (at one point he literally grandstands!) and slows down the narrative in order for facts about fracking to be heavy-handily inserted. This makes the film feel about twenty minutes too long. All this said, if you are caught in a romantic mood, those minute problems could be easily brushed aside in favor of swooning over the film’s sentiment and heart.
PROMISED LAND opens in in select cities on Friday, December 28th. It opens wide on Friday, January 4th. For a full list of theatres, go here.